Holiday blues can make some people dread the season, starting with Turkey Day and continuing through the new year. Other people drag through the winter months, including the holidays, with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that can occur as your body responds to fewer daylight hours.
But there are things you can do to combat winter sadness. To help keep your spirits up during the dark, cold months, we asked what mental health professionals want you to know about being blue this time of year — and what you can do to lift your mood.
Holiday Blues and SAD: Two Different Conditions
Feeling down over the winter holidays is not the same as having SAD.
"SAD is thought to be due to the lack of sunlight in the winter season," says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at the Montefiore Medical Center and associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Your body reacts to lower levels of sunshine with lagging energy, a need for more sleep, and a general ''blah'' feeling.
"Holiday blues is situational," Dr. Rego explains. "It's people's reactions to stuff.'' That stuff could be pressure to shop, be cheery, and get together with people you don't especially like.
Some symptoms of SAD and holiday blues can be quite similar, he says, including feelings of stress, tension, and sadness.
''You're always trying to find psychological reasons [for SAD], but it's pegged to light," says Norman Rosenthal, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, who is credited with coining the term "seasonal affective disorder." If you suspect you have SAD, seek help from a mental health professional, who can recommend treatments such as light-box therapy that can help greatly, says Dr. Rosenthal.
While the two problems differ, there is a common denominator, notes Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. "In both situations, people feel like they don't have control," she says.
But you actually do. Try these holiday mood-enhancing tips from Dr. Wallin, Rosenthal, and Rego.
Check Your Expectations to Improve Your Mood
If you have a fairy-tale expectation of what your holiday season will be like, you should reevaluate that, Rego advises.
Expecting holiday travel to go smoothly, for instance, isn't realistic. And when it turns out to be bumpy, it's bound to make you irritable. Expecting a harmonious family dinner in a family where arguments are frequent isn't realistic, either.
Plan Ahead to Avoid Bad-Mood Triggers
Think back to holidays past, and events or comments that made you sad or stressed. Then try to avoid them. "If you know you always get into a fight with Uncle Jack, figure out a plan where you don't sit by Uncle Jack at the dinner table," says Rego.
"Or if you know things [at a family dinner] tend to turn dark at 11, have Uber scheduled for 10:59," he suggests.
If you realize you get lonely on certain holidays, plan something you can do, such as charitable work or volunteer work. "That can help counterbalance the loneliness," Rego says.
How You Appraise the Situation Can Make a Big Difference
You can't control all situations, but ''we always have the power to choose one thought over another," Rego says.
For instance, imagine you hear about a party you weren’t invited to. One reaction is to feel rejected and jilted, says Rego. Another would be to see missing one party in a busy holiday season as a natural and welcome break. You might decide to stay home and enjoy a movie, get some shopping done, or fit in a workout while you have the time.
If You Limit Your Time on Social Media, You May Feel Better
If you're prone to holiday blues, consider taking a social media break, says Wallin, author of Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide For Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior. "Feelings of exclusion, loneliness, or loss can be even more acute as you see a barrage of happy photos and stories posted by other people on Facebook," she says. Some research has shown that the more people look at social media sites, the less happy they are with their lives due to a natural tendency to compare.
At holiday time, social media can be ''like Christmas letters on steroids every day. We tend to do more upward comparisons," she says. Looking at all the happy photos and stories may make you feel ''they're having a better life than I am," adds Wallin. "If you're already bummed out and you go on Facebook, it's only going to make you feel worse."
Remind yourself that what you read on social media "is a glimpse of someone's life, but it's not necessarily representative of their life," Wallin says. For instance, someone may post, "We had 14 people for dinner!", but they leave out the part about an argument breaking out.
Practicing Mindfulness Can Soothe Your Mood
The concept of mindfulness focuses on moment-to-moment awareness and accepting that most things in life are a mixture of good and bad, Rego explains. If you can accept that the holidays are filled with challenges, your mood might improve. This involves expecting realities, such as long airport lines and full flights with screaming babies.
You can also temper the reality with the reward. "I may be stuck in traffic, but at the other end is a party that will be fun," Rego says.
Resist the Urge to Write a Holiday Script
Turn off that mental movie of how this year's holidays will be just as stressful and awful as the last dozen, says Rego. Instead, approach this year's holidays with a clean slate and an open mind.
You Are Allowed to Say 'No, Thanks'
Some people can't get into the holiday spirit no matter how hard they try. "The more they try, the worse they feel," Wallin says, which is when "It's okay to sit this one out." Depending on family responsibilities, that can mean different things to different people. For some, it could mean planning a fun day doing exactly what you want — even if it's nothing holiday-related.
If you can't avoid going to a holiday dinner, you can sit out optional activities. Declining invitations can come as a relief, she says. You can use that time to schedule something fun that you would prefer doing.
What Psychologists Want You To Know About The Holiday Blues was originally published on Everyday Health.
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