Susan Says: Strategies for Overcoming the “Holiday Blues”

Susan Mitchell, LCSW | Guest Writer

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Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, and celebration, but for some people, they are anything but!  For those struggling with mental or physical health issues; loss of a loved one; being alone, conflicts with family, or financial stressors, holidays can be the most difficult time of the year. At the same time, the expectation coming from everywhere is to have a “holly jolly time” which tends to make these problems seem even more unbearable.

The stress during the months of November and December can cause even those who are usually content to experience mood swings and depression. The reality is that even positive events cause stress, and demands or changes in routine are a key factor in causing anxiety.

These major holiday celebrations also come at the darkest, coldest time of the year when the shortage of sunlight negatively affects many people. Seasonal affective disorders are biological and are common in a high percentage of the population causing depression, fatigue, and a general lack of motivation to do anything – at the busiest time of the year.

A poll by the American Psychological Association shows that 8 out of 10 people anticipate increased stress and worry about “getting through the holidays.” The Mayo Clinic reports that “depression is often an unwelcome guest during the holidays”.

The holidays present a dizzying array of demands on our time and our pocketbooks. We have commercialized Christmas to the point that our mailboxes and email accounts start filling up at the beginning of November with advertisements and offers from every store we have ever set foot in. Expectations of spending time with extended family can bring up old conflicts and irritations that increase stress levels. Holidays can also be a time of sadness for many as we revisit loss and grief for those who are no longer with us.

When stress is at its peak, it’s hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past. Here are 10 suggestions to manage stress and make room for more enjoyment of the season.

  1. Keep it all in perspective. Holidays don’t have to be perfect. At the end of the day, no one cares if the lights are crooked or the turkey is dry. The focus needs to be on spending time celebrating and connecting with those you love.
  2. Make space. Make a deal with yourself to spend 15 minutes alone, without distractions, more than once a day. Do deep breathing exercises, take a walk, or listen to calming music. You don’t have to be “on” all the time, and 15 minutes can recharge you more than you realize.
  3. Use a buffer. Spouses, partners, friends, and loved ones can be sources of tension, but they can also be sources of protection. Make a deal with a trusted person to intervene when they hear Aunt Sally start to grill you on your personal life. Set up secret signals beforehand in case the person might miss the cue to step in and help.
  4. Take care of yourself. Don’t throw healthy habits out the window just because you think you are too busy.  Get enough sleep, drink lots of water, and don’t skip meals. Continue to exercise. Exercise is especially important in reducing stress levels because physical activity produces endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
  5. Acknowledge your feelings. Sadness is common during the holidays due to distance from family or friends, loss of loved ones, or unexpected disappointments. Forcing yourself to be happy will only increase your sadness and build resentment. The key is to take breaks from sadness or grief. Use healthy distractions, social interaction, or be creative (e.g., writing, music, art) to express emotions in productive ways that don’t drag you down and may help you sort out next steps. Get professional help if needed.
  6. Set a budget and stick to it. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts.  Financial stress can affect every facet of our lives including our health.
  7. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.
  8. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to delegate and ask for help.
  9. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity.
  10. Keep it Simple. The holiday season is particularly stressful when you have too much on your plate. This might be the case if you’re welcoming out-of-town guests and hosting family festivities. You don’t necessarily have to cancel your plans, but make sure you’re not setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.  Make sure you are protecting your time and our finances and don’t try to do it all!

Finally, if you become increasingly depressed and feel you are unable to function – call to get help. You may have seasonal affective disorder, or a significant depressive disorder and it can be treated!  For more information on these topics see our website at www.ascendantclinics.com.

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