While we often view the holidays as a merry occasion, many people don’t feel like singing ”Joy to the World” to celebrate the season. Quite the contrary, this time of the year may stir up old and new family conflicts, financial worries, and unrealistic expectations about how we believe that the holiday season should unfold. These mounting holiday stressors may cause us to light up with gloomy feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anxiety.
These symptoms may even snowball into an emotional concern, known as the “holiday blues.” The holiday blues are characterized by sleeping concerns (sleeping too much or not sleeping enough), feelings of sadness, irritability, and anxiety, as well as appetite changes (eating too much or eating too little). For some people, the “blues” may trigger a more serious mental health concern, such as major depressive disorder.
Several things make us more vulnerable to mental health concerns during this time of the year. For starters, holiday stress often causes us to forgo our usual self-care regimens, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and sleep. When these basic stress management techniques are off kilter, it impacts our overall wellbeing. Additionally, if we’ve ever lost a loved one, or if our families are complicated and wrought with unresolved hurt feelings, the holidays may ignite feelings of dread instead of excitement.
Yet we can get ahead of this holiday mayhem by putting ourselves first, which means prioritizing our emotional health over baking, shopping, gift-wrapping and party going.
To help you weather the stress of the season, I’ve put together the acronym “H.E.A.L.” as a way to offer you some practical tools that may help you cope with the holiday blues before they turn into holiday depression.
H: Help Someone
When we’re feeling down, research indicates that small acts of kindness not only help those in need, but they give us a mood boost, too. The holidays bring a plethora of altruistic opportunities. You can volunteer to help feed the homeless or donate a stuffed animal and books to families and children in need. If these things feel overwhelming, remember that initiating a small act of kindness isn’t stressful at all. You could pay for someone’s holiday latte at the coffee shop, hold the door open for someone whose hands are full or express heartfelt gratitude to someone in your life who helps you every day, such as a co-worker, a teacher, a friend or a child-care provider.
When you’re feeling depressed, sad, and lonely, it’s common to want to hide under the covers until the stress of the season passes. But psychological research indicates that isolating from others doesn’t make us feel better; it makes us feel worse. If you feel like withdrawing, reach out. Talk to a trusted friend or schedule an appointment with a psychotherapist who can offer you objective, non-judgmental support. Remember that vulnerability yields intimacy. Even if sharing with others feels scary, it builds supportive relationships, and these connections can help to lessen our suffering.
A: Adjust Expectations
Even when we’re adults, we may still hope that the holiday season is magical and that our parents, aunts, and cousins will transform into an ideal family like the one depicted in the movie, “A Wonderful Life.” Unfortunately, these expectations set us up for disappointment. Try to adjust your expectations by keeping a realistic perspective on how things are instead of how you imagine they should be. For example, instead of holding your family to unrealistic ideals, accept them for their imperfections. It’s important to let yourself off of the hook, too. If you believe that every cookie you bake or gift that you wrap should be perfect, you might set yourself up for feeling burnt out. Instead, remember that you’re human and that this time of the year isn’t about ‘doing’ for others as much as it is about ‘being’ together with loving friends and family.
L: Listen to Your Gut
During the holidays, platters of tempting cookies, pies, and hors d’oeuvres tempt us to overeat. As a result, we may not listen to our bodies before we reach for that second slice of pie or grab another mixed drink. But, it’s important to honor your gut feeling. If you think that you shouldn’t have an extra drink, try a non-alcoholic beverage like sparkling cider instead. When we consume too much alcohol, it negatively affects our mood, which makes depression feel worse. Try to pace your holiday outings and give yourself permission to change your mind. Boundary setting is an important self-care tool that can help us navigate stressful times with ease instead of distress.
This blog post originally appeared on Well Clinic’s mental health site.