More Health:

December 15, 2023

For some men, rewriting the 'holiday script' may prove beneficial to their mental well-being

It's OK to discard traditions that have become too stressful over the years, health experts say. Doing so may even bring a little joy

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Holiday Stress Men Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

The holidays are expected to be full of joy and happiness, but they bring added strain to many men – and masculine norms call for them to harbor those feelings. Health experts encourage people to consider ditching holiday traditions that bring too much stress.

The holidays are full of joy and happiness, just not for everyone.

For some, the season may trigger memories of lost loved ones and feelings of loneliness or depression. Masculine norms create economic pressure on men who are expected to finance family Christmas lists, trees and dinner with all the trimmings. On the outside, the hustle and bustle can seem exciting, but on the inside, anxiety and stress may reside.

For men who refuse to depart from this script or seek help, the holidays may not be so jolly. Wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and ugly domestic trends, like the retail theft that we have witnessed locally, can bring down the most optimistic among us. Layer in a troubling new report on suicide and men have a strong case to break from tradition this year by proactively managing their states of mind.

A reason for concern

Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S. and men over 50 have experienced significant increases in recent decades, according to a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November.

From 2001 to 2021, men ages 55 to 64 saw the greatest increase in suicide rates, rising from 21.2 deaths per 100,000 men to 26.6. Similarly, the suicide rate for men ages 65 to 74 grew from 24.5 to 26.1. These rates are 3 to 5 times higher than women in these same age brackets.

Though it is well-established that suicide rates trend higher among older adults, the report is a glaring signal for men over 50, a demographic not known for embracing mental health care. The findings scream for men to pay attention to their stress and vulnerabilities, which can be at heightened levels this time of year.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, men with mental health concerns are less likely to speak up, receive treatment or get a proper diagnosis. More than 6 million men suffer from depression every year, but male depression often goes underdiagnosed.

As for the holidays, a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of people living with a mental illness felt that their conditions get worse at this time of year. Added stress can heighten symptoms associated with depression, anxiety or substance use disorder, the organization states. Fortunately, medical experts offer a full range of advice for navigating the stress of the season and staying mentally fit.

How to manage stress at the holidays

McLean Hospital in Massachusetts offers coping strategies to people feeling the stress of the holidays. Those that lack the "holiday spirit," shouldn't force themselves to feel happy – it's a situation they share with many, the hospital notes. People should avoid using alcohol or other substances to cope and try to find others who may be feeling similarly and build new traditions. For those feeling pressured to participate in activities, but want no part, McLean recommends prioritizing the most important activities or deferring social connections until after the holidays. Most importantly, people should be comfortable saying "no."

Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles recommends effective self-care, like getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals, and having sufficient downtime. Multicare, a health system in Washington, says that some of the season's most common challenges include heightened stress and anxiety, isolation and loneliness, and pressure from a need for perfection. The health system suggests that by focusing on gratitude, people can build the resiliency to fight off disappointment. Multicare also endorses setting priorities and boundaries. By being open and honest, people can proactively reduce the chances of being overwhelmed and stressed.

If the holiday season triggers sadness or grief over the loss of loved ones, The Mayo Clinic recommends people acknowledge that it's OK to feel that way, and even share those feelings with others. Set aside family differences and look for the positives in those that traditionally present a personal challenge – and don't bring up hot topics.

The Mayo Clinic also stresses that mental well-being can also be supported by practicing healthy habits. While it is the time of year to indulge, try to maintain a healthy regimen as much as possible by eating right, avoiding excess alcohol, getting enough sleep and staying physically active.

The Vail Health Foundation provides additional tips for coping with holiday stress. Establishing a budget early can prevent overspending and ensure reasonable expectations. Pacing oneself, and organizing one's time are good practices. And there is no need to carry on traditions that have morphed into real stressors. If it's time, let them go.

The University of California, Davis School of Medicine recommends periodic check-ins with oneself to monitor one's emotional state. By ranking mood or stress levels on a 1-to-10 scale, people will know when to take a break. Having a few go-to tactics is a great resource. Listening to music, exercising or enjoying hobbies can be useful in preempting emotions from escalating to more serious levels.

Trusting your instincts may bring holiday joy

Cultural standards have a strong influence on our lives. The force of these practices can be particularly strong on men who feel the need to maintain masculine norms. The suicide rate among 50-plus men is but one indicator of the personal tragedy that can occur when men ignore their emotional state and try to plow through life without acknowledging the realities of their humanity.

The holidays can certainly be a time of joy and happiness if you understand the pitfalls and steer your actions – and emotions – in the right direction. Shifting your mindset on the holidays in midlife is not easy. Men are programmed to follow the holiday script, no matter the emotional cost. But if happiness is the goal, you need to pursue the pathway that will get you there, even if it's a new one.

If your heart tells you that you need to divert from your practices of the past, so be it. Follow your instincts. You'll know what you and your loved ones need. Rewriting the script may be the best thing you ever did.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

Follow us

Health Videos