‘Tis the season to be jolly! The season for candlelight, friends, gatherings and warmly lit fireplaces. Although the holiday season is a time full of parties and family gatherings, for many people it is also a time of self-evaluation, loneliness, reflection on past “failures,” and anxiety about an uncertain future. It is the season for the holiday blues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines the holiday blues as temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays that can be associated with extra stress.
There is much connected to our holiday festivities that can cause us stress. What to wear? What food to bring? What gifts to get? For some people though, the more pressing question is, “How will I get through the holiday stress and the memories that accompany the season?”
This is also the season, with the days getting shorter and shorter, when we spend a significant amount of time inside and in the dark. Waking up in the dark, going to work in the dark, and leaving work in the dark can be tough for many of us, putting us at risk for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the wintertime.
What causes the holiday blues?
Researchers have yet to uncover the specific cause for SAD, which is also referred to as the holiday blues. However, they do acknowledge that several factors are at play.
The reduction in sunlight in winter can throw our biological clocks out of whack and reduce our levels of serotonin (a brain chemical that regulates our mood) and melatonin (a chemical that regulates sleep and mood).
The holiday or winter blues can be triggered by other factors that include unrealistic expectations, overcommercialization, or the inability to be with our families and loved ones. The increased demands of shopping, parties, family reunions, and houseguests also can contribute to these feelings of tension. Even people who do not become depressed can develop other stress reactions such as headaches, excessive drinking, overeating, and difficulty sleeping during the holidays.
When to seek help
Recent studies have shown that environmental factors — namely fewer hours of sunlight — can contribute to feelings of depression around the holidays. SAD is considered a category of depression that emerges in particular seasons of the year. Most people notice SAD symptoms starting in the fall and increasing throughout the winter months. If you are experiencing SAD symptoms (e.g., changes in sleep and appetite, a loss of pleasure in activities you once loved, depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness, a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, reduced sexual interest, unhappiness, thoughts of death or suicide) make an appointment with a mental health provider.
We all have days when we feel unmotivated, but if your symptoms are causing disruptions in your life, it is time to reach out for assistance. A mental health professional can help you figure out the things in your life that are stressing you out and help you make a plan to manage or minimize their impact on your emotional health. In addition to seeking help from a mental health professional and avoiding specific unhealthy habits, implementing the positive actions described in this article can help improve your symptoms.
During the holidays, there are many obligations — from attending parties to wrapping gifts to baking treats — that can cause us stress. We can easily get caught up in fulfilling these obligations rather than spending time doing the things that would actually bring us joy. Rather than letting the season take a toll on us, we can take positive actions to emotionally prepare ourselves for winter and the holiday blues. After all, the holidays are supposed to be a time for us to recharge and restore our energy for the year ahead.
Here is a partial list of positive actions that can help prevent the holiday blues.
1) Get organized. The brain functions better when structure is provided. Take time to go through your closet and put away any clothes you won’t be using during the winter months. Move the key pieces you will be reaching for during the cold months to the front of your closet. This will give you a feeling that you are in control.
2) Get festive. Decorate for the holidays to make your space feel a little less monotonous. Put on some appropriate tunes while you are decorating. This will help you feel included and as so many others are celebrating in their own unique ways. Remember that holiday cheer does not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely. There is room for these feelings to be present, but a little holiday spirit can help you better manage your emotions.
3) Let go of the past. Don’t be disappointed if your holidays are not like they used to be. Life brings changes. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. You set yourself up for sadness if everything has to be just like the “good old days.” Instead, prepare yourself by stocking up on delicious smelling candles, or light a fire and sit down with pen and paper to write a gratitude journal, or send handwritten notes to friends and family. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not tried before. Try volunteering some time to help others. Dopamine (“happy juice”) is released in the brain when we perform acts of kindness.
4) Go window shopping. Go shopping without buying anything. Take advantage of holiday activities that are free of charge, such as driving around to look at Christmas decorations in your neighborhood or participating in your community tree lighting or church service tradition.
5) Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you. Do you ever find yourself staying late at work because you don’t have a reason not to? Make reasons to leave. Make plans with friends ahead of time so you can’t back out and just stick around the office.
Things to avoid
1) Do not stay inside and be alone for too long. Try going outside as often as possible; getting plenty of sunlight will lift your mood. Visit a church or gather with others. The holidays are intended to be a time to get together with people we love to express gratitude for the things in our lives that we treasure. It is a time to spread messages and acts of love to one another. Keeping sight of the true reason for the season and spirit of the holidays will help to improve your mood.
2) Do not stop your exercise routine. Exercise works like an antidepressant. It increases levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, boosting your mood. But for many people, the holiday season brings drastic changes in routine. They lose their sense of normalcy and stop the routines they have established that help them to feel healthy and secure. It is of great importance to maintain your usual routines — particularly your exercise routine — even throughout the holidays. Sometimes, something as simple as sticking to a routine can help you maintain a sense of control. Don’t forget to keep a reasonable sleep schedule as well.
3) Do not drink excessively or use drugs. For those who have lost someone close to them or experienced a romantic breakup, the holidays can trigger intense feelings of loss and pain. Some people fall into the trap of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to alleviate emotional pain and other symptoms of depression. In reality, treating these problems with alcohol or other substances only makes the problem worse.
Alcohol and depression have a dangerous relationship. Although alcohol can create a sense of pleasurable feelings in the short term, it is ultimately a depressant on the central nervous system and will leave you feeling worse. In addition, alcohol lowers serotonin levels in the brain, causing a person who feels depressed to slip into an even deeper depression. Alcohol also interferes with metabolic processes and sleeping patterns, which can further worsen the person’s condition.
Instead, it is helpful to prepare for these triggers with a therapist or close friend. Then you will know what to expect and how to handle the strong emotions that you may experience. Another way to mourn the loss of a loved one around the holidays is to honor their memory through a holiday tradition that they enjoyed. Perhaps this involves baking their favorite dessert, putting up their favorite decorations, or sharing stories and special memories of the person.
Make an agreement with yourself about how many drinks you plan to have in advance, and stick to it. Seek immediate help if you are using alcohol or drugs to manage your pain and are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
There is nothing new under the sun, and the same is true for the ideas discussed in this article. I have not suggested any strategies that are not already known or that have not been given by somebody else. But what I have done is provide an organized list of positive actions that you can take to prevent the holiday blues.
If you anticipate that the holidays may be a challenging time for you and you could use a little extra support implementing any of the positive actions from this article, make an appointment with a mental health provider. Counseling in one of the most powerful weapons we have to protect against emotional pain, depression, the holiday blues, and even the everyday ups and downs of life. Having someone who is trained and there specifically to talk about your feelings is invaluable. Remember, asking for help is a sign of strength and movement toward a better version of yourself.
You can’t force yourself to have fun, but you can push yourself to take the positive actions necessary to protect yourself against the emotional impact of the holiday blues. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it is painting, singing, playing the piano, working on crafts, or simply hanging out with friends. And consider how you can start implementing these positive actions today for a more meaningful, well-balanced, healthier life this season and every season.
Esther De La Rosa Scott is a licensed professional counselor. She is a solution-focused specialist and couples therapist. Her specialties include relationship counseling, grief, depression, and teaching coping skills. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.