The Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s Day stretch can mean six weeks of joyful family get-togethers, celebrations, spiritual renewal, travel, gift exchanges, surprises and much more. As the song suggests, it can be “the most wonderful time of the year.”
But there is also plenty about the holiday season that isn’t included in beloved melodies. For many people, this time of year sets them on an emotional rollercoaster that may be marked by feelings of loneliness, sadness, guilt, grief, and anxiety.
Recognizing those feelings and the behaviors that follow is critical in working through them and, in many cases, overcoming them to find joy during the holidays, explains Paola Pedrelli, PhD, Director of Dual Diagnoses Research at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
“People who feel sad during the holidays may tend to isolate themselves because they do not want to be a burden,” she says. “This actually may make them even sadder. It is important to force yourself to be social and to be with loved ones when you are sad to create new memories.”
She adds that it’s also important to continue doing the things that normally make you happy, even if those activities don’t seem as appealing this time of year or you are less motivated to do them. You may find that interacting with friends and relatives, maintaining your usual exercise routines, and continuing with hobbies, may keep your spirits higher than you expect.
Even if you try to treat this time of year like any other time of year, there still may be some potential emotional pitfalls ahead. The following are some strategies to help bust the holiday blues:
Have Realistic Expectations
With all the hype that accompanies the holiday season, you may be counting on family reunions, gift giving (and receiving), and all celebrations to be the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting or a TV movie with a guaranteed happy ending. Of course, experience teaches us that the holidays don’t always runÊsmoothly.
Dr. Pedrelli says it’s important to remember that, despite all the smiling faces you might see on Facebook or on TV commercials, this time of year presents a mix of challenges and good times for most people. Thinking that you should always be happy and upbeat during the holidays because everyone else is feeling that way is unrealistic and an inaccurate understanding of the difficulties faced by others. It’s also important to know what triggers feelings of sadness and anxiety inÊyou.
“During the holidays people tend to overestimate how happy others are because of images on the television and common topics of conversations,” says Dr. Pedrelli, who is also part of the staff at MGH’s Depression Clinical Research Program. “I would just say that they need to find ways to block some of the messages, depending on how much they actually get affected by them. For example, if someone is prone to get upset, I would encourage them not to look at Facebook or TV during the holidays. Alternatively, they may just need to remind themselves that many people are also struggling, and that they are not alone if they get triggered.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Navigating the holiday season can require you to make more decisions about your personal behavior than other times of the year: Do you spend the holidays with this relative or that one? Should you have an extra slice of pie just this once? How about an extra glass of champagne? Is it safe to talk politics during Thanksgiving dinner? While every situation is unique, there are some universal guidelines worth considering:
- Enjoy Alcohol and Food in Moderation: While it can have the temporary effect of relaxing party guests wanting to make merry, alcohol is a depressant. Relying on it to get through a stressful period can lead to dependence, as well as alcohol-related issues, such as drunken driving, falls, and regrettable behavior. Know your limits. The general guideline of one drink per day for women and two for men is a healthy rule to follow. Likewise, to avoid guilt, as well as physical health complications, try to eat wisely, too. Smaller portions allow you to enjoy a variety of goodies with a little less caloric intake.
- Don’t Take on Too Much: It’s easy to overcommit during the holidays. Be willing to say no to some invitations and don’t volunteer for more than your schedule and peace of mind will allow. Feeling like you have to be in two places at once or committing more of your energy, time, and money than is reasonable can keep you stressed for a long time. Pace yourself. Give yourself the gift of relaxation during this time.
- Feel Free to Avoid Confrontation: If the opportunity is there to reconnect positively with family and friends over the holidays by sharing personal news or long-held feelings, then by all means take advantage of the togetherness. But the holidays may not be the best time to bring up long-held grudges or turn the conversation to controversial subjects, such as politics. “If someone anticipates seeing family with different political views, it is best to not discuss certain difficult topics,” Dr. Pedrelli says. “If you have the support of a clinician, you could consult with them and discuss effective communication strategies to use with family members when they may want to talk about important issues.”
Reach Out for Help
If you don’t have a friend or family member with whom you are comfortable talking about your feelings, consider seeing a mental health professional. You don’t have to start with a psychiatrist or psychologist. A local community center or health clinic may have mental health services. You may feel more at ease talking with a member of the clergy. The important thing is to share your feelings with someone who can help you sort themÊout.
An outside voice may also be able to help you understand that it’s quite normal to feel sad or overwhelmed these days. “It is important to express our feelings to others and to remember that there are others who unfortunately struggle during the holidays,” Dr. Pedrelli says, adding that it’s especially important to open up about your feelings if you have a history of depression, anxiety or if you have recently been through a difficult period in your life.
“People with a history of depression may be at higher risk for a relapse, or to experience symptoms of depression during the holidays if they do not have family support,” she explains. “So they may consider reaching out to a clinician to find ways to cope with those symptoms.”
Balance Change with Tradition
Some of the most appealing parts of the holidays are the traditions: the meals you’ve enjoyed since childhood, old decorations that conjure up warm memories, and gathering at a particular relative’s home for annual festivities. Traditions help us maintain family ties and link our lives today with how we celebrated the holidays when we were young.
But if some of the things you do every holiday season fill you with dread or anxiety, or represent more work than you can handle, it may be time for a change. If hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the entire family has become too much, then talk with a close relative about a “changing of the guard.” Volunteer to bring dessert, for example, but let someone else handle hosting duties for a while. Starting a new tradition can be a positive thing, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about initiating something different.
However, some traditions have to change out of necessity. That can be disconcerting, especially if the change is due to the passing of a loved one. “Deaths may change the dynamic around holidays,” Dr. Pedrelli says. “For example, if someone we used to spend the holidays with has passed away, such as an aunt and uncle or parents, it is important to create a new routine and give new meaning to the holiday, while continuing to celebrate the person who has passed. For example, if we used to go to our grandmother’s home for Thanksgiving, but she has passed away, it is critical to continue to celebrate the holiday while continuing to celebrate her life. It is important to keep the memories of what we used to enjoy while making new ones.”
Dr. Pedrelli acknowledges that if the person who passed away is a partner or someone you used to live with, the holiday will be even harder because people may experience a significant change in how they live through the holiday. “They will feel lonely more of the time and may have more triggers for sadness,” she says.
Financial difficulties may also change people’s holiday habits. For example, some people may not be able to afford to visit family they used to spend the holidays with.
“It is important to create new habits and not to feel guilty or ashamed,” Dr. Pedrelli says. “Maybe you could plan to visit during low season when traveling is less expensive. Make sure to use technology, such as FaceTime or Skype, to keep in touch with family.”
Keep Some Perspective
If you start to feel pressure or guilt about enjoying the holidays, remember that these are also just days on the calendar. Your best time of the year may be in the summer, so make the best of things now and look forward to whatever fun lies ahead. You can get through the holiday season. Your best strategy may be finding joy in the little things, like the smiles of excited children or a cup of coffee while you’re warm inside and snow is blowing outside. Try to relish the small moments in between the big celebrations.