If all the holiday displays of red and green have left you feeling bluer than blue, take heart because you are not alone. While no formal studies have been conducted on the incidence of the "holiday blues," a mental health expert I recently talked to was quick to say it is not an unusual occurrence.
"It's ironic, but many people struggle with feelings of sadness during the time of year we traditionally think of as being most festive," said Paul Keck, M.D., President-CEO, Lindner Center of HOPE, and Lindner Professor of Psychiatry and Behavior Neuroscience, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
Dr. Keck said there are sound psychological and biological reasons why people feel down as the year draws to a close. Everything from increased demands on our time and budgets to decreased sunlight can leave us feeling depleted, he explained. I asked him if Hallmark should rush a batch of "Unhappy New Year" cards into production.
"That's probably premature," he laughed. "There are a lot of good coping strategies for getting through the holidays in one piece."
Here are his tips for keeping the comfort and joy in this holiday season.
Make a Plan
People need to be realistic about what they can accomplish during the holidays. Many people try to fit too many activities into too little time and end up feeling rushed, anxious and disappointed because they were so busy doing that they missed out on just enjoying. Be selective about the events and activities you put on your plate. You don't have to have an outdoor light display big enough to be seen from Mars or bake every variety of cookie shown on the Food Network. Having one goal is actually plenty and that goal need be no more than to relax and enjoy being with people you don't see very often.
Stick to a Routine of Sorts
Don't create more stress for yourself by trying to rigidly maintain your normal sleeping and eating schedules in the midst of holiday celebrations, but don't go so overboard that you get yourself into trouble. For example, if you are going to have a heavy evening meal, eat lighter during the day. You don't have to get up at the crack of dawn, but don't sleep excessively. And don't forget to include some kind of physical activity. A simple walk is a great mood booster and can give you some needed alone time or one-on-one time with someone.
Holidays sometimes become the anniversary for remembering the losses families have sustained. The flip side of seeing all the smiling faces around the table is the painful awareness of those who are missing. Rather than gloss over or deny the sadness, it's better to acknowledge it and understand that it's perfectly normal for grief and sadness to percolate up at certain times. It can be healing to use those times as opportunities to talk about the people who are gone, what they meant to the family and to celebrate their lives.
Plan Some Down Time When It's Over
A certain amount of recovery time is to be expected. If you know you tend to "crash" when all the hubbub has passed, try to adjust your schedule accordingly and give yourself permission to have some down time come January. But, sometimes a strong feeling of letdown indicates that the holidays were too frantic and that there wasn't enough time to process everything that happened. It's important to give yourself time to do that because while feeling sad does not necessarily mean you are depressed, unacknowledged sadness can trigger depression. And then you are dealing with something much more serious that just the holiday blues. If feelings of profound sadness persist for longer than two weeks, it's time to seek medical attention to see what's going on. You may be depressed or have another condition such as a thyroid problem.
Keep a Sense of Humor
A sense of humor is a valuable coping skill, so try to keep yours when the roast burns and the dog knocks over the tree. And remember that eventually your relatives, including Aunt Louise who criticized everything from your haircut to your wallpaper, will go home.
Good advice to keep in mind as we head into the home stretch of the holiday season. And to all, a good night!