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Ask the Expert: What Can I Do if I’m Struggling this Holiday Season? ‘Seeking Help is a Really Good Thing. I Want Everyone to Know That,’ Says Community Counseling, Education and Research Center Co-director Helen Lupton-Smith

Helen Lupton Smith discusses way people who are struggling this holiday season can get help

This is part of the monthly “Ask the Expert” series in which NC State College of Education faculty answer some of the most commonly asked questions about education.

The holiday season is a time of joy for many, but for others the holidays can bring on feelings of stress and anxiety, which may be exacerbated this year by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the current political climate.

Helen Lupton-Smith, Ph.D., an assistant teaching professor in the NC State College of Education and the co-director of the Community Counseling, Education, and Research Center (CCERC), says it’s common around the holidays for counselors to see clients who are facing stress as they put too much pressure on themselves trying to create the “perfect holiday.”

In addition, financial constraints or memories of lost loved ones tend to be amplified during the holiday season, as are feelings of isolation and loneliness for those who don’t have somebody to celebrate with.

This year, Lupton-Smith said, pandemic-related issues such as travel restrictions, loss of income due to furloughs and job losses and the need to protect vulnerable family members from the coronavirus might cause negative feelings even for those who typically enjoyed the holiday season.

“This year is a highly stressful time in history. I think we need to pat ourselves on the back as we deal with the stressful time both politically and with the pandemic, which has really restrained us from being able to connect as we usually do,” she said. “We’re protective of older members of our families, we’re protective of others who might be at risk and that obviously puts an additional several layers of stress on what can already come up around the holidays.”

Lupton-Smith said that it’s important for people to understand that the holidays might look different this year, and that it’s OK to come up with creative ways to carry on traditions, such as over Zoom or through outdoor gatherings when weather permits. People should give themselves grace and keep an open mind as they tweak and alter their typical holiday celebrations to accommodate current world circumstances.

In addition, people should not feel as though they need to live up to the “perfect” holidays depicted in movies and should celebrate in a way that is ideal for them.

“It’s good to take care of yourself for your holiday. Just imagine how you want it to be; it doesn’t have to live up to anybody else’s expectations,” she said. “It’s normal not to feel joyous all through the holidays. Different people have different experiences, so normalizing that is important.”

For those who are feeling overwhelmed this holiday season, Lupton-Smith said that it’s important that they don’t feel alone and that reaching out to a counselor for help can be beneficial.

As co-director of CCERC, which allows College of Education graduate students to offer free and reduced-price counseling services to community clients that have been traditionally underserved or marginalized, Lupton-Smith is helping to train the next generation of world-class counselors. Future counselors use a model of delivery that is founded on wellness and multicultural principals while also offering services to those who have traditionally been distrustful of mental health care or may not otherwise be able to afford it.

Although CCERC follows the NC State University academic calendar, and is therefore closed during much of the holiday season, Lupton-Smith said they offer several online resources year-round.

In addition to wellness blogs that are accessible to all, their website offers links and phone numbers for crisis support, including the National Suicide Hotline and crisis interventions specific to North Carolina, as well as ways to contact local and national domestic violence, sexual assault and food assistance response.

“Don’t feel like you’re alone. There are resources available 24/7 in the area. It is important to know you are not alone and can seek help if you’re struggling with managing feelings of depression or anxiety that may come up during the holiday, especially during a time where we are dealing with extra unusual stressors,” she said. “It’s important to seek help if you feel alone or you’re feeling really depressed or having a lot of anxiety. Seeking help is a really good thing. I want everyone to know that”