12.19.12

Peer Support around the Holidays

If you are like me, the thought of going home for the holidays fills you with a mixed sense of anticipation, excitement, and anxiety. While we hope for calm, peace, and joy, we know that the holidays carry challenging stressors for ourselves and our loved ones. For those less fortunate than us, this period can be especially stressful if they’re not receiving the support that they need. This blog will highlight some common situations that appear around the holiday season and show you what some peer support groups are doing to address those problems.

Adhering to Dietary Plans / Maintaining Healthy Weight

Many of us abandon our diets during the holidays to take advantage of the cornucopia of comfort food. With the New Year around the corner, we reason, it’s about time to start a new weight loss resolution anyway so we ought to at least eat well before we begin to tackle that goal. Any willpower that we once had melts away once we are confronted with the magnitude of the banquet arrayed before us.

Research on the effect of the holiday season (Thanksgiving through New Year’s) on body weight and composition in college students found a significant increase in % body fat and fat mass. Additionally, research found individuals that were successful at losing weight prior to the holidays are more vulnerable to weight gain during this season (possibly highlighting the need for ongoing support).

To avoid weight gain and keep a healthy diet, peer support from friends or health coaches may be particularly beneficial. Peer health coaches understand the challenges of maintaining a healthy weight over the holidays and have been shown to be effective in helping individuals lose weight. Weight management is a particularly challenging issue for those battling chronic illnesses like diabetes in which a healthy daily diet is critical to successful self-management.

Maintaining Sobriety

In addition to good food that’s probably bad for us, alcohol consumption over the holidays can also be a problem. Throughout the season, we are surrounded by the sight of people enjoying a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. In some cases, people turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress of familial dysfunction and unhealthy relationship dynamics. Data collected from 200,000 alcohol offenders monitored 24/7 for alcohol consumption shows that drinking increases nearly 27% between Thanksgiving and January 2nd. For people in recovery, peer supporters can help provide the motivation, personal lessons, and skills to help them cope with holiday stressors. Avoiding excessive drinking over the holidays can also help lower incidents of drunk driving and prevent accidental injuries or death.

Dealing with Loneliness and Depression

Even when individuals are surrounded by family members, they may still feel a sense of isolation, loneliness, and depression. Indeed, the holiday season may actually exacerbate these feelings for individuals coping with mental health issues. However, it’s not only individuals with mental health issues that suffer during the holidays. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to feelings of isolation and loneliness. For older adults that are widowed and/or do not receive much familial support, peer support groups can promote positive affect and lead to physical health benefits. In addition to peer support, interventions that are effective at reducing loneliness include cognitive re-framing (changing negative views of self and others), traveling with a goal, adopting a pet, acts of altruism, and spirituality.

The Mayo Clinic and National Alliance on Mental Illness offer helpful strategies for coping with depression during the holidays. Online support networks such as the Experience Project enable people share their stories and receive support from users that have had similar experiences.

Coping with Loss

Families that have experienced the loss of loved ones in the past year will profoundly feel their absence during the holidays. According to the National Alliance for Grieving Children, grieving children feel less alone when they can be with other children who have experienced the death of a parent. Local and regional peer support groups (1, 2) can help children cope with their loss. Other support groups can help parents of grieving children talk to them about loss.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Newtown, CT tragedy, an entire community needs support in a time of crisis. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement offers resources for schools. The following organizations are available for parents that have lost a child: The Compassionate Friends, The COPE Foundation, Bereaved Parents of the USA, and the MISS Foundation.

Peers for Progress sends our thoughts and prayers to the families of Newtown, CT. There is nothing more difficult than the sudden loss of a child. We hope that you will find comfort in each other’s love and find some peace during this holiday season.

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