Don’t let the pressure of the season steal your joy

By Natasha Persaud

When you think of the holidays, is your first response "Bah, humbug!"? You're not the only one. With all the hustle and bustle, the lack of sleep, the relatives, the fatty and sugary foods, you may be feeling drained, physically and emotionally.

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"It's not uncommon for some people to become mildly depressed during this time of year," says Cheryl Person, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to feel better. Remember, the holiday blues will pass. The best thing you can do is treat yourself gently, and get help when you need it. Here, Dr. Person explains how you can beat the blues:

1. Why do some people get the holiday blues?

Many factors contribute to the blues, says Dr. Person. "Around the holidays, you may feel overstretched financially; your daily routine may become disrupted due to parties and shopping; you may be eating unhealthily; you may feel increasing stress dealing with family members; or you may be feeling lonely. Financial, social and physical strain can all lead to holiday depression."

Many of the problems center around the pressure to create the perfect holiday. People romanticize what is going on in everyone else's life and try to live up to that ideal. "Holidays are not as magical as some people believe," Dr. Person says. "Your family won’t suddenly be on their best behavior, things won't go exactly as you had planned, so it's important to adjust your expectations accordingly. Just as no one has the perfect life, no one has the perfect holiday."

2. What are the signs of the holiday blues?

To determine whether you’re suffering from the blues, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I snapping or arguing with people I don’t normally argue with?
  • Do I have trouble sleeping?
  • Do I feel fatigued, or do I have a lack of energy?
  • Do I feel lonely or isolated?
  • Am I crying more often?
  • Am I eating too much or too little?
  • Am I experiencing headaches or digestive complaints?
  • Have I lost interest in doing things I normally enjoy?

You may have noticed that these symptoms are similar to those of clinical depression. "The difference is the holiday blues are short-lived," says Dr. Person.

"You get them right before the holidays, in anticipation of the stress that's coming; or you feel burdened during the holidays because of all the demands; or you become depressed in January when the holiday bills start arriving in the mail. But these blues should go away once the holidays are past."

3. What are the warning signs that someone I love has the holiday blues?

If your loved one seems withdrawn, is tossing and turning at night or unable to fall asleep, is constantly worried or appears irritable around the holidays, he or she may have the blues. Express your concern and offer help. Suggest activities that you both can enjoy together, such as working out at the gym, and brainstorm possible solutions to the problem.

4. How can I beat the holiday blues?

"You'll feel much better if you maintain healthy eating and exercise habits throughout the holidays," notes Dr. Person. "It also helps to think about your own needs and to create personal boundaries." Here are some helpful guidelines:

Stick to a budget: Instead of spending to excess, determine how much you want to spend on gifts, and don't go over the limit. Tell family and friends, "With the economy so uncertain, I’m trying not to overdo it this year." It's a win-win situation, since it also helps them when it comes to choosing your gift.

Focus on what you have, not what you don’t: Ignore the commercials where someone surprises his partner with a new luxury car or a sparkling diamond ring. Those commercials only leave you wondering, What about me? Remind yourself that it’s not stuff that makes the holidays special.

Don't dwell on the past: Memories of happier times—or not-so-happy times—can disrupt your life now. If these holidays are nothing like the joyous times you enjoyed as a child, don’t let it sadden you. If you had a big fight with your parents last year, don’t automatically think that you’ll fight again this year. Instead, allow yourself to enjoy the present moment.

Eat just enough: Overeating can make you feel ill and contribute to weight gain, so don’t feel obligated to consume everything your host puts in front of you. To politely decline extra helpings, say, "Everything was delicious, but I couldn’t eat another bite."

Keep to your routine: When you’re shopping, cooking and going to parties, you’re less likely to spend time on self-care, exercise and rest—but those healthy habits help protect you against negative emotions. Get good rest, and you’ll be less bothered by family squabbles and upsets.

Continue to do things you enjoy: When you’re feeling overscheduled, it’s tempting to postpone bowling night or your weekly manicure, but that could be just the break you need.

Say “no”—and skip the guilt: You don’t have to accept every invitation, if it means you’ll be losing sleep or precious downtime. “Some of us need private time to recuperate and regain our energy,” notes Dr. Person. Feel free to leave the party a bit early or to politely decline an invitation.

Spend time with others, if that helps: Being with others can help you feel less lonely and gives you a sense of community and closeness. But remember, everyone has their own comfort level in each social situation; as Dr. Person notes, "For some people, being in a crowded room can actually highlight their isolation. Do what seems right.”

Share your feelings. It may help to talk about them with someone who cares. Rather than repeating your problems, however, state them just once and use the rest of the time to brainstorm practical solutions.

Set grievances aside. The holidays are not the best time to deal with troubling relationship issues. Choose to talk about those issues sometime in the future, when you have the opportunity to deal with them effectively. In the meantime, if your sister brings out the worst of your teen self, try to accept her as she is, even if her behavior doesn’t live up to your expectations. Also, if you understand that you and she won’t “magically” get along just because it’s a holiday, you’ll likely have an easier time handling your feelings while you are together.

Focus on the true meaning of the season. Forget about making your home spotless for company, and instead focus on celebrating the true spirit of the season: Attend religious services, spend time with people you care about and who care about you, count your blessings and do something for someone else.

5. The holidays bring back memories of loved ones who have passed away. How can I cope with the sadness?

It’s normal to feel sad when you’ve lost someone close to you, and you may feel the pain more acutely during the holidays. If so, give yourself permission to grieve, and deal with the loss in your own way. If you feel an urge to cry, let the tears flow. If you want to remember your loved in a special way, go ahead: Light a candle, put together a scrapbook, decorate the grave stone with flowers or a wreath, or do whatever else you find comforting. How a person grieves is specific to that individual.

If your feelings of sadness send you back into deep grief and it continues past the holidays, you may have developed complicated grief. It may be helpful to see a mental health professional, who can help guide you through the grieving process.

6. I’m having a hard time getting over the blues. What are some options when it comes to therapy?

If your feelings of sadness or depression don’t pass with the season, consider seeing your primary care physician who can rule out any physical problems. If needed, the doctor can refer you to a therapist or a psychiatrist, who can help you to cope with the stress.

If you feel sad every moment of the day, every day, for weeks, you may have developed clinical depression. Hormonal changes and recent illnesses such as heart attacks or cancer can contribute to depression—at any time of the year, including holidays.

Research shows that people with depression who receive therapy recover more quickly and experience less devastating effects. There are many forms of therapy that can benefit you. Here are three of the more common types:

Supportive therapy: Together with your therapist, you address your concerns and strategize how to deal with them.

Psychodynamic therapy: You and your therapist identify sources of conflict within your family or other relationships, and strive to understand how the past is affecting the present in hopes of changing it.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: You learn how to break negative thought patterns that are causing you to feel sad and to think more positive thoughts.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Nov 2008

Last Modified: 02 Dec 2014