You are not alone: How human connection can help us cope with holiday stress
Research indicates that the stronger the self-perceived sense of belonging to a community, the greater the likelihood of successfully managing stress.
The pace of the holiday season and its many obligations can be overwhelming, especially for those who may be far from family or feeling disconnected from those around them.
Susie Davis, the director of community impact for Eagle Valley Community Foundation, recalled her first holiday season after moving to Eagle County more than 40 years ago. At the time, she was living in the Eagle River Village Mobile Home Park in Edwards, states away from the rest of her family.
“A group of my neighbors and work colleagues made Christmas together, assuaging family traditions and creating our own,” she remembered. “We were homesick, struggling, and looking for ways to make this community our new home.
“Endless shared stories of family helped us create a connection with one another, and eased the isolation we felt away from our loved ones. We found value in being there for each other.”
Davis said these gatherings with her neighbors made her feel needed and understood in a vital way during what would have otherwise been a very difficult holiday for her.
“Feeling a sense of belonging is the experience of personal involvement in community where we understand that we are an integral part of community,” she said.
Cassandra Armas, a behavioral health provider for Mountain Family Health Center, said research indicates that the stronger the self-perceived sense of belonging to a community, the greater the likelihood of successfully managing stress.
“When you have spaces like that where you feel completely comfortable, places that feel like home, that helps you increase your emotional well-being because you can kind of recharge by spending time with people that appreciate you for who you are,” Armas said.
‘Human connection helps us heal ourselves’
Not having access to spaces that provide this sense of belonging can leave the door open for isolation. The holidays bring plenty of stress with them — both financial and emotional — and feeling lonely can make us less capable of coping with that stress in a healthy way.
“Expectations are hard, you know, societal expectations or personal expectations,” Davis said. “You’re trying to fulfill holiday expectations at the expense of yourself and your own well-being.”
The holidays can also increase feelings of isolation for people who, for one reason or another, don’t identify with this being “the most wonderful time of the year.”
“It can be easy to think ‘everyone else is out having parties and loves the holidays and I don’t so there must be something wrong with me,’” Davis said. “Which causes us to isolate even more.”
Armas said feeling lonely during the holidays is especially common in Eagle County due to the prevalence of seasonal workers who may be states or even countries away from their families.
According to an article published by Alo House Recovery Centers, feelings of isolation can impede the brain’s ability to function properly because so much mental and emotional energy is consumed by being lonely. Feeling isolated triggers a hormonal response to heighten the body’s awareness of perceived threats leading to increased paranoia and stress.
“Human connection helps us heal ourselves, and builds up stronger immunity to ailments both physical and psychological,” the article states. “Community isn’t just about creating relationships — although that is a central component. It’s also about building a space, both physical and emotional, to better communicate empathy to your fellows.”
Fostering a sense of community belonging
Davis said that Eagle Valley Community Foundation designed its two principal programs — The Community Market and the MIRA Bus — with this vision of community in mind.
The Community Market is a food assistance organization offering no-cost groceries Monday through Saturday and the MIRA Bus is a traveling RV that provides public health resources.
“These are spaces where you can go, no matter what,” she said. “It’s really our responsibility as an organization to make sure it’s a place where people feel like they can be just exactly who they are right at that moment.”
Staff members of both programs make a concerted effort to ensure that each person they encounter feels known, needed and cared for, Davis said.
“In this next phase, we are asking ourselves ‘Are we helping our customers feel that they belong? Are we encouraging participation in the solutions and success of our programs?’” Davis said. “To me, that sense of belonging is what community is…it’s where you really get to play a vital role in effecting change.”
The EVCF team is working to embody this vision by encouraging community members to volunteer and to be involved in deciding how the programs can better meet their needs, Davis said.
The Community Market and MIRA also strive to address social barriers that may prohibit people from feeling a sense of belonging in the broader community by bringing together residents of all different backgrounds, cultures and socioeconomic statuses, according to Davis.
“As an organization, we can provide social opportunities for gatherings,” she said. “They don’t have to be large gatherings, but we want to provide that safe space and the time for social connection.”
Having worked at The Community Market during its first year of operations, Armas said she thinks the program does a great job of building community through events and volunteer opportunities.
“By just being there and allowing people to volunteer, they have already created that space where people can forget about whatever is going on in their life and help out for a while and really feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” she said.
Davis said that, while this approach may seem quite simple, she believes in the power of community after feeling its warmth that first Christmas when she moved to the valley.
If you or someone you know is having a difficult time this holiday season, speaking with a mental health professional can be very beneficial.
To schedule an appointment with a mental health provider, visit the Eagle Valley Behavioral Health website at eaglevalleybh.org/find-a-therapist. For more urgent matters, residents are encouraged to call Colorado Crisis Services, a 24/7 hotline, at (844) 493-8255 or by texting “TALK” to 38255.
Kelli Duncan is a marketing and volunteer coordinator with The Community Market, a project of Eagle Valley Community Foundation. To learn more about the mission of the Eagle Valley Community foundation, visit https://eaglevalleycf.org/.
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