Dr. Anthony Jensen, MHS medical director
David Peters, family therapist with offices in Mission Valley
Related Story: Help For San Diegans Dealing With Holiday Stress
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You hear the question everywhere right now, even strangers ask you the question, trying to make polite small talk. They ask all you are ready for the holidays? Then you are reminded that no, you're not already. Many of us are not even half ready and Christmas is next week. Now in addition to the usual stress of the holidays many people deal with greater anxieties around this time of year. Family dynamics or loss of a loved one can make it a stressful and challenging time. So today we are looking at how to deal with the stress that comes with the holiday season. I'd like to welcome my guests. Dr. Anthony Jensen, he's medical director of mental health systems, a nonprofit provider of services for mental health, alcohol and drug addiction and Dr. Jensen welcome to the program.
ANTHONY JENSEN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David Peters has a family practice with offices in Mission Valley and David, welcome back.
DAVID PETERS: Good to see you, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, David. There are fewer days this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday leaving less time to prepare, so many of us are working right up to the holiday and because it's in the middle of the week right after how do we keep from being overwhelmed?
DAVID PETERS: Well I think at a time like this it's important to remember you don't have to do everything that you hear is possible at the holiday season. You know we are under a lot of pressure to decorate the house and get the lights up and go shopping for all the gifts and get all the food ready.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Clean the house.
DAVID PETERS: Clean house and make this the best Christmas ever that kind of pressure can easily make it the worst Christmas ever. I think it's important to bear down and say what's most important was going to make me really happy or what's going to make the family really happy. Not just give them pleasure, but happiness and that often means letting go of some of the commercial enterprise. Letting go of some of the shopping. More often than not, you can bring the family together and have more meaningful holidays by celebrating traditions, baking together, attending to the spiritual dimensions of your holiday much more so than waiting in the lines of the parking lot start to get all the gifts that you, someone or that you promised the kids. It's better to bear down and him for what's most important.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Jensen, how do you tell people to start their kind of balance between holiday family and work commitments?
ANTHONY JENSEN: Well I think it's important again as David says not to try to overdo it. Accept that there is a limit to what you can do. And to try and plan as much as possible. And be okay with if you can't achieve as, everything all at once. As far as when family are visiting, kind of try to overlook differences, focus on sharing, realizing that it is stressful for them, too probably.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I would imagine that the holidays can be particularly tough, Dr. Jensen if you've just lost a loved one or if you are dealing with any kind of significant trauma in your life. Is all the pressure to be merry this time of year a stress for people who are really deeply not merry, for a variety of causes?
ANTHONY JENSEN: Yes it absolutely can be. It can be very hard you know if somebody has lost a loved one to see other people sharing, maybe enjoying time with their loved ones, so that loss can be heightened. It's especially hard for people who may have an anniversary around this time of a loss. Or even for those who cannot be with loved ones for whatever reason, perhaps they are a military family and someone is in a deployment or they have a child who is in college who can't come back. So there could be deep sense of loss and seeing how other people are sharing. So it is important for individuals who are going through that to acknowledge those feelings, to accept that it's okay to feel sad. That you know, you don't have to always be happy during this time. And to also possibly take a moment to honor those feelings, honor that loved one we lost, maybe do something special to note that remembrance of that person.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because David, there is this kind of pressure to be happy during this time of year and if you are not people fear that they are doing something wrong, don't they?
DAVID PETERS: Yes oftentimes, people, our culture is critically influenced by the commercial culture around us and I say turn off the radio turn off the TV except for public radio.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Of course
DAVID PETERS: Or there is the commercial pressure but whenever you are being told I've literally seen the initials for the Jaguar car saying show her the real meaning of Christmas. Jaguar. This is craziness. A larger number of lights on your house is not going to make you happy. The excessive gift buying and giftgiving doesn't make most people happy. I tell a lot of families that after a certain number of gives the more you give your children the less valuable each gift is I see my families with children that are angry and bitter who are just overindulge with objects that they desire and they don't understand the value of them when they are flooded with them and you've been spending hours and hours driving around shopping at the shopping center's fighting traffic you are not having fun I say be sufficient terms of what would give me real happiness what would give me real pleasure and is usually family, his friends, and maybe cooking, it's family traditions and the spiritual dimension of the holiday.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Jensen this is a season of indulgence. People tend to eat more, they tend to party more, how does a person who's already dealing with issues of substance abuse and the holidays?
ANTHONY JENSEN: Right, yes it can be especially a difficult time if you are either in recovery or you are dealing with an addiction issue and again I think it is important for people to monitor that this is going to be a tough time for them. If you are in recovery and perhaps you have a lot of social gauge means you have to attend there will probably be alcohol at those events. It's important to notify the host possibly that you are in recovery. Be open about that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Should people stay away from holiday parties?
ANTHONY JENSEN: That's a personal decision depending on the person, what stage they are in their recovery. How comfortable they are being around others who are imbibing alcohol, or using substances. But I do think it's important for people to let others know, you know, like the host so that they might have some options, you know, some nonalcoholic beverages, things like that. And also seek support from their sponsor for example if they are in a 12 step program.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, David, stress can also make people who don't usually drink a lot kind of start overindulging. Partygoers themselves you go from one to another, you might be drinking a lot more, or partying a lot more than you usually do. What is an alternative to really stress around the holidays instead of overindulging in either food, drink or substances.
DAVID PETERS: I counsel a lot of my clients thinks in terms of health. Health may mean I'm not going to eat so much it's okay some, not have everything on the table. It's okay to not drink alcohol at the party because frequently people don't feel good afterwards. I was at a party last night and you could tell who was having fun and whose spouses are irritated because some of the wrong things were being said in front of people. It's incredible how alcohol messes up the fun of a holiday season. And even if you are not struggling with an addiction it's okay to say you know, I just have some of the soda over there I'll have a cup of hot tea, the important thing is connecting with your friends and that's where you have the most fun is connecting with them, not getting intoxicated
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You bring up family dynamics which can also be a stressor, people get together who perhaps haven't seen each other during the year they fall into roles we all know when we are at family gatherings what advice can you give people who are saying no no, not again.
DAVID PETERS: Once again we used to have to say this but in the last couple years it's just not a good time to talk politics for many funerals families there are many people who are not in the same political arena you are and it hurt so badly once the discussion comes up. So for that. Also going to bring up a good number of clients who are experiencing their first holiday season after a divorce where they may not have the kids with them on Christmas morning. And there's a delicate season. You're having to exchange kids back and forth between a soon to be ex husband and wife in the middle of an angry divorce and I think that think in terms of the children's health, what's most important for them? Can I be forgiven can I be caring can I be living can I be gentle even if I think it's unfair because that's what's healthiest for my children.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Jensen we don't often think of children or adolescents as being stressed out or under pressure during the holidays, but you do a lot of work with young people and gave it just brings up this idea of going back-and-forth between households during the holiday. Is this a hard time of year for can sometimes?
ANTHONY JENSEN: Yes it certainly can be. Again, for kids, as David mentioned sometimes they have to move between two different homes. And share two different we know, celebrations, and there will be two different sets of pressure on them. When you look at older adolescents this may be, they may be finishing up a school semester, a lot of pressure to get that all done and then have a break and have to return shortly after that. So there could be a lot of changes to their routine which can add some more pressure. And something important to think about with kids is during that time when all the families rally around the maybe feeling a lot of support, but once the holiday is over there kind of back in school and having to get back into a routine as they had before, which can be a lot of pressure for them.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you say to kids who are dealing with going back and forth?either they are just dealing with their own family pressures or there's extended family pressure especially if they are children of divorce. What can the kids do, what can parents do to make that a little bit better for them?
ANTHONY JENSEN: I think took knowledge, try to be on the same page and provide some consistency between the two environments. Try to accept that they may be trying to please everyone, the kids, and those two settings. And to focus on thinking about how the kids are feeling during that time. Not again, trying to please them just by deluging them with presence and things like that. Or again, acknowledging that these changes in routine during the holiday season can kind of really throw a kids behavior off during that time.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are the signs, David, that maybe a kid is under too much pressure?
DAVID PETERS: I think when you see your child more silent than normal, when there is adult discussions about tense issues and the kid is silent and moving into the corner, you can tell. There's a lot that's not being said. And I'd want to take the child off by himself sometime and say you know this is really difficult for you, I see that and you can tell me anything you want right now. Tell me what you are feeling right now and what you'd like us to do about this situation because your opinion is really important here. A lot of times children have to divide the holiday right the middle of the day” to open presents at this house and go to that house and be surprised all over again. This is torturing. Parents in the middle of a divorce have to make some painful decisions sometimes because what is best for your kid is often what is not fair for you in the debate between you and your ex spouse and your ex is often not thinking of the children, that's often why there's a divorce going on in the first place so it's a very delicate negotiation but spending time alone with your kids and saying tell me what's most important for you. I want to try and accommodate that if you can get them to freely talk because they often feel like they cannot freely talk. That's really critical then of course kids who are acting out more or who are showing problem behavior that you haven't seen recently, they are often expressing in any directory that they're angry or in pain or confuse.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Jensen sadly we often hear that domestic disturbance calls increase over the holidays is someone who feels a situation is getting out of control either acutely or they have a chronic problem they need to deal with what resources are available in San Diego?
ANTHONY JENSEN: Well of course in an emergency people should call 911 if things have already reached that point where they are completely out of control and there is an emergency situation. Otherwise the County of San Diego has access and the crisis line, which is 1-888-724-7240 which is, they are open 24 seven to take calls, you can talk to a licensed professional about how to get resources or how to handle the crisis. As well as you can look at the MHS website organization, www.MHS.Inc.org to look for resources and you can seek a license therapist as well through our services.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it your experience, David, that people do want to reach out if they feel that the situation is teetering off into the abyss so to speak? Or that, you know, it is, just too much has to do with family and they don't want to reach out?
DAVID PETERS: I find that a lot of them reach out once it has really gone off the deep end. If this is their first time in such a crisis. Their families were they've been in crisis many times over the years so they already know the scene, they know it's going to get out of control it's time for us to leave for time for somebody else to leave but families where the crisis is just now developing for the first time people often don't recognize it. There's certain level of denial which is the time it takes the human mind to recognize this is a different situation and we have to be sensitive to that. Usually at a little alcohol to the fire and things can escalate very quickly.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line who would like to comment on our conversation, here, Mike is calling and Mike, welcome to the program.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much. It's Michael Jones. I'm an LCSW therapist I work with foster and adopted children and at the holidays of digitally difficult for these kids because it's another reminder they are not with their first families, so parents will see strange behaviors like tantrums and withdrawing and the rest that they may not identify as being grief and loss associated with that. So just want to remind families of that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Mike, what do you tell the families who are dealing with children who are going through this?
NEW SPEAKER: Well, to prepare for the holidays by keeping things very very simple and preparing the children ahead of time to celebrate their birth families if possible at different times during the year. Upcoming during the holidays, and to reconnect even sometimes when they are not able to be with those people but for the adoptive families and the foster families just to take a moment to recognize that there is a family, there's a biological family that I came from and we remember them too and we include them in our cultural holiday or whatever we have planned. We just take a moment like we do for relatives that have passed away that they are with us, we are sad but we are going to celebrate today and celebrate all of our families.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mike, thank you so much for the call.
NEW SPEAKER: You bet.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To my guests here in studio we've covered a wide range of issues and possible challenges over the holidays. I want to ask you both are you both all ready for the holidays?
ANTHONY JENSEN: Not at all. I just had my parents staying with me for the past three weeks from the Midwest and they just left, so now I can begin planning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And David?
DAVID PETERS: I have explained that for holidays for me it's like bringing an airliner in for landing on an icy slick runway on the slow you've got to aim very very carefully. So far it's going really well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right then. Thank you so much for your advice. I've been speaking with Dr. Anthony Jensen, medical director of mental health systems and David Peters family therapist with offices in Mission Valley. Thanks a lot, guys.
DAVID PETERS: Good to be with you Maureen. Merry Christmas.
ANTHONY JENSEN: Merry Christmas.