The weather has changed, stores have had their holiday stuff in the aisles for weeks now, parties are being planned and, as the weeks go on, everyone seems to be becoming cheerier. If you’re not, there’s nothing wrong with you. Many people dread this time of year and usually get depressed and irritated around Thanksgiving and don’t recover until well after New Year’s Day. For some, holiday thrills and distraction can bring a crash of having nothing afterwards.
These feelings are common. Although many feel excited and energized by the holidays, others can become overwhelmed, frazzled, and depressed. Much of the despair experienced at this time of the year may be about a combination of expectations, memories, and comparisons between images of “holiday joy” and the realities of one’s life. For example, advertisements, music, and television specials present high expectations of togetherness, family, and gift-giving. Yet, for many, the holidays bring back memories of disappointments, strained relationships, and sometimes trauma. Others may long for the happy holidays that they once enjoyed.
Take time to identify which of the following issues cause distress for you at this time of year:
You may be fed-up with the crass commercialization of this time of year. Constant expectations to spend money can also exacerbate your financial burdens. As a result, you may not only be turned off by the holidays but also not have the cash to keep up with them. This may cause you feel “on the outside looking in” during all the festivities.
For those who have been rejected from religion, this time of year may remind you about feeling not good enough or abandoned from such communities. Thus, you may feel angry or find little comfort with religious holiday meanings and celebrations.
You may feel dread, frustration, anxiety, or boredom while being with relatives who are not accepting of you or you don’t have much in common with. Added to this, you may feel ashamed about not speaking out or being more yourself. Holiday reunions are even more depressing if your partner is not welcome or you do not have a loved one to bring.
This time of year may have been a traumatic period for you growing up. Many children experienced stress, trauma, neglect, and conflict during this time for many reasons. Any images, memories, and associations with this time period could trigger post-traumatic responses that signal your body to recall such feelings from before and react as you did during/after the trauma Providing a context for these responses may help normalize and reduce the fears around them and set up self-care activities to buffer these reactions.
Because holidays can be a time of reflection and social gatherings, you may feel the loss of beloved family members and friends. This period can also feel dreadfully lonely and isolating if you don’t have a significant other or circle of supportive friends. The bar scene may seem like the only place to connect to others, which may offer only a limited amount of connection and more problems.
Holiday demands can also pile up on top of other responsibilities and complications that you normally face. Consequently, many feel bullied by the holidays and lose track of what is important to them and end up exhausted and crunched for time and resources.
Your mood can also feel gloomy due to the weather becoming colder and dark. Lack of sunlight negatively affects between 2-10% of the population, a phenomenon called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Add this to the stress of driving through the snow and shoveling walks, and the holidays can become an even more depressing and frustrating time of year.
Of course, there is no “snapping out of it.” Some individuals attempt to cope by drinking heavily, eating too many sweets, spending more money than they can afford, or isolating themselves. However, the essential idea about the holidays is to structure them so that you are more in charge and can create activities that are meaningful to you. With this in mind, the following suggestions are offered to help you maintain balance and create enjoyment during this time of year:
Rethink your approach to the season: Despite popular opinion, there are no rules for how you need to live during winter. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in a way that reflects your changing viewpoint and needs. Create new traditions and decide for yourself each year how and with whom you’ll spend this time. If you want to honor spiritual beliefs, then reclaim your right to worship in a manner that feels meaningful to you. Explore various spiritualities & settings that celebrate who you are and confirm how you feel about the holidays. Also, decide how, to whom, and if you want to give this season & in which way so that these choices fit who you are currently.
Be realistic: Don’t succumb to the pressure to make this “the best holiday ever.” Brainstorm a list of what you’d like to do and prioritize the most important activities. Pace yourself by spreading out the fun and establishing a realistic budget. Planning ahead will help you feel more in charge of your life and less guilt and fewer regrets afterwards.
Reach out to others: When you’re feeling blue, it may feel easier to withdraw. Yet, getting out of the house, doing something you appreciate, and spending time with supportive people may lighten your load. Take things slowly. Consider new ways to make friends and how you want to connect this season. Find out what the community offers and participate in it. Make contact with those with whom you have lost touch.
Volunteer: Don’t underestimate how volunteering can alleviate low feelings. For example, volunteering allows you to unite with altruistic people, while providing you with the satisfaction of knowing that your time, talents, and love are valuable to others. Be creative in choosing how you’ll provide support. An easy suggestion may simply be to visit with those who feel alone during this season.
Acknowledge your feelings: Pay attention to your specific issues and situation. Don’t force yourself to be happy if there are unresolved issues that need to be dealt with. If your holiday blues stem from past losses, then take advantage of the season to reminisce, acknowledge, and honor what you’ve lost. Spend time feeling your feelings. This process may help you decide how you can adjust to your losses and reinvest your energies. As you reminisce, remember to be mindful of the positive things you currently have in life.
Create downtime: With demands piling up, block out time to relax. Focus on activities that recharge your batteries.
Avoid excessiveness: Despite the assumptions, drinking alcohol, using drugs, and eating excessively will not make the holiday “merry and bright.” Getting drunk will mean a hangover, and party drugs can create more stress and problems. As for eating, target your favorite foods and allow yourself to indulge with a balance between enjoying yourself and nurturing and maintaining health.
Seek out sun and endorphins: Try to get at least 20 minutes of sunlight each day, which isn’t always easy during winter weather. Schedule fun exercise so that it is a priority and to increase wellbeing.
By making intentional changes, in time, you may come to look forward to the holidays because they will be more manageable and reflect who you are.
Handout adapted from an article written by Lee Beckstead, PhD, and Jim Struve, LCSW