Managing the Holiday Blues

Depression, Featured Article, Mental Health & Sleep Center
on December 3, 2013
holiday blues 2

The holidays are supposed to be a merry time, but not everyone feels the season’s cheer. That’s probably not surprising: As holiday pressures squeeze already-crowded work and family lives, it can create undue stress, anxiety and even depression for certain individuals.

“There are a lot of ‘shoulds’ around the holidays,” explains Beverly D. Flaxington, a human behavior coach based in Boston and author of Self-Talk for a Calmer You (Adams Media, 2013). “’I should be happier. I should be able to buy better gifts or throw a better party.’  There’s all the hype about holiday perfection, and most of us fall short.”

Feelings of loneliness can also heighten for people who have recently lost a loved one or moved away from family.  Add to that a junior-high like social pressure, says Flaxington, and no wonder spirits plummet. “You can feel like everyone else got invited to the party, and you didn’t.  All of that is more poignant at the holidays.”

Another spirit-sapper is finances, says Flaxington: “You’re adding expenses to every day bills when you’re just making ends meet as it is.”

Although it may seem to you that you’re the only Scrooge, Flaxington says that holiday depression is not only common, but normal. “That the dirty little secret that we’re not likely to talk about because we’re supposed to be joyous.  And some people do love the holidays and the cooking and the entertaining.  But they are the minority.  Most people—even if they aren’t in crisis—are worn out and stressed.”

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Still, there are ways to de-Grinch and feel more attuned to the holiday cheer. The next time holiday blues strike, deploy these methods for deflecting sagging spirits:

Disarm your sadness triggers. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.  So, make this year distinct from other years by avoiding whatever triggers your sadness, says Flaxington: “Identify what is most burdensome to you and decide that’s the thing you won’t do.  If not getting invited to a party saddens you, throw your own.  If finances are a burden, give gifts of time like offering a ride, making a phone call, or sending a card with a handwritten note.  Showing someone you care doesn’t have to be costly.”

Set realistic expectations. “Ask yourself, ‘What can I do that won’t be a burden, but that will also let me participate in the holidays?’” says Flaxington. “Enjoy the holidays as much as you can but don’t expect a transformational experience.”

Stick to a budget. “Most people wake up in January with a financial hangover,” says Flaxington. “Make a list of who you are buying for and what you can afford that keeps you in the comfort zone.”  Shop early as well so you don’t feel pressure to overspend.  And lose the fantasy of the perfect gift, says Flaxington: “Just buy something you think is meaningful.”

Say “No.” Prioritize: If an event or duty is going to increase your stress, skip it, says Flaxington: “Figure out what you want to do and say no to the rest.”

Halt sad sack chatter. Holidays can awaken memories that haunt your thoughts. “We tell ourselves stories about what the holidays mean—like ‘the last time at mother’s was awful and exhausting,’ or ‘I’m always alone. ‘ When you tell yourself such stories, you set yourself up for a bad experience,” says Flaxington. “ Send yourself positive messages instead: ‘I’m going to approach things differently this year,’ or ‘I will look for what joy I can.’ They’ll give you more energy and confidence to get through the holidays.”

Hang onto healthy habits. You may feel so busy that you no longer have time for exercise or sit-down meals.  But put them on your calendar, says Flaxington.   Feeling physically well will help keep spirits from taking a nosedive. “And have strategies for choosing what to eat,” she adds. “At a party, walk through, see what’s there, choose one plate, and that’s it.  And pay attention: stop when you’re full.”  Add sleep to your calendar too, says Flaxington: “A good night’s sleep will trump anything else you plan to do.”