ECU experts weigh in on seasonal stresses, anxiety

While Andy Williams may have declared the holidays the “hap-happiest season of all,” for many of us, this time of year is synonymous with increased stress and anxiety.

The holidays are like a coin. You have the family, fun, happiness and traditions all on one side of the coin, and then you have the stress of it all on the other side. 
- Dr. Ashley Britton, clinical assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine, Brody School of Medicine

The stressors can come from anywhere, including family tensions, finances, work demands, changing family dynamics and even dealing with the loss of a family member, friend or material possessions.

“It puts a lot of strain on people – personally or financially – when they have these kinds of issues to deal with,” Britton said.

For many college students, the holiday season kicks off during a high-pressure time of their scholastic careers when they are preparing for final exams and projects, said Emily-Lynn Adkins, associate director of Parent and Family Programs at ECU.

“And our families are experiencing a little bit of stress because they are going to be welcoming their students home for an extended period of time,” Adkins added. “For our first-year students and families, this will be the longest period of time that they’ll be home since they’ve experienced that sense of independence when they got here to ECU.”

Despite these stressors, the holiday season is still about family and belongingness, Britton said.

“But you can choose to define ‘family’ however you may like and you can choose to surround yourself with a community of people who are supportive and who are happy to know you and cherish you,” she said.

Below are some examples of stress that are often amplified during the holiday season and ways in which East Carolina University is working to alleviate them.


To request an interview with our experts on holiday stressors, contact ECU News Services: 252-328-6481 or

We have experts available to speak on the following topics:

• Families adapting to college students returning home for break
• The money burden of the holidays
• Celebrating the season when you or a loved one struggles with addiction
• Military services members experience stress few civilians understand
• The holiday season is a particularly stressful time for many farmers and their families
• Mental health is an overlooked aspect of hurricane recovery
• Holiday season yet another stressor for physicians in danger of burnout


The move to college isn’t all about academics. Most students are living on their own for the first time, deciding when to come and go without curfews or parental supervision.

Returning home for an extended holiday break – after being away since the dog days of August – can bring conflict and stress to the most joyful of family-centered times.

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Here’s bad news for college students: A Princeton University study says financial stress can make you less smart.

The good news is climbing out of that money hole can make you smart again.

That’s all the more reason for students to mind their dollars and cents as the holidays – and final exams – approach. Avoid gift-buying sprees and instead keep looking ahead. As far as the holidays go, start looking ahead early, said Dean Smith, director of student centers for student involvement and leadership and a finance instructor in the East Carolina University College of Business.

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Stress during the holiday season is common. Making long journeys to see family, feelings of obligation to give and receive gifts graciously and preparing meals and settings worthy of a celebration can all add a heightened sense of pressure for everyone.

But for those struggling with addiction or who are in recovery, the holidays can be especially difficult, and the additional stress and temptation associated with the holiday season can trigger reuse or relapse.

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East Carolina University alumna Mikhayla Dunn serves as a combat medic in the Army National Guard. The specialist sees good things in her military service.

“By far the best part about the military for me is meeting new people and finding lifelong friends,” said Dunn, who graduated ECU in 2017 with a degree in public health studies. “Sharing experiences together, good or bad, has a way of bringing people together. It’s like having a second family.”

However, she admits the job comes with a type of stress few outside military service understand. Dunn is on deployment and will spend a significant amount of time, including the upcoming holidays, apart from her husband, Christopher Kistner.

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While most families are preparing for their holiday meals and festivities, many farm families will have their holiday cheer dictated by the harvest of their crops and Mother Nature.

For many of North Carolina’s row crop farmers and Christmas tree growers, their harvest comes at the same time as the holidays.

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Eastern North Carolina has seen its share of hurricanes in recent years. They blow in, flooding homes and businesses and leaving thousands of displaced residents in their wake, unable to return to their damaged homes.

The stress of being displaced, the gargantuan task of cleaning up muddy, moldy debris, and the financial burdens of storm recovery all add up to create the potential for mental health issues, said Dr. Heather Littleton, associate professor of psychology.

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During the holiday season, many physicians will see an influx of patient visits due to the flu season entering its peak and also their patients rushing to schedule appointments before their insurance deductible resets at the end of the calendar year.

This holiday stress compounds the already heightened stress issues faced by the physicians of today.

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While turkey or ham has traditionally taken center stage at holiday meals, some families may find that their students transitioned to a plant-based or meatless diet over the fall semester.

If you’re wondering what to cook, East Carolina University nutrition science students Justin Cefalu and Shay Ernest recently “veganized” four Southern dishes – green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, macaroni and cheese, and quinoa-stuffed squash – that can be served at the holiday table. Student Jackson Dellano provided a vegan sweet potato pie recipe.

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In episode four of Talk Like a Pirate, ECU’s podcast, News Services’ Rich Klindworth speaks with Dr. Ashley Britton, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine at Brody School of Medicine, and Emily-Lynn Adkins, the associate director of ECU’s Parent and Family Programs, on the causes of holiday stress and how to alleviate that stress.

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