Dealing with the holiday blues

Not everyone shares in the celebration and joy associated with the holidays. Many people feel stressed and unhappy in response to the demands of shopping for gifts, spending large amounts of money, attending parties and family gatherings, and entertaining house guests. It is not uncommon to react to these stresses with excessive drinking and eating, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating and physical complaints such as headaches. The holiday blues are a common result. If you experience reactions like these during the holidays, you are not alone. Remember, while they may be intense and unsettling, holiday blues are usually short-lived, lasting for a few days to a few weeks prior to or just after the holiday. The good news is holiday blues usually subside after the holiday season is over and daily routines are resumed. Let’s take a look at what causes the holiday blues and what you can do about them.

What causes the holiday blues?

This is a time of increased stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, inability to be with family, memories of past holiday celebrations, over-commercialization, change in diet and in daily routines. As a result you may experience the following:

Fear of disappointing others. Some people fear disappointing their loved ones during the holidays. Even though they can’t afford to spend a lot of money on gifts, some people feel so obligated to come through with a fancy gift that they spend more than they can afford.

Expecting gifts to improve relationships. Giving someone a nice present won’t necessarily strengthen a friendship or romantic relationship. When your gifts don’t produce the reactions you had hoped for, you may feel let down.

Anniversary reactions. If someone important to you passed away or left you during a past holiday season, you may become depressed as the anniversary approaches.

Bad memories. For some families, the holidays are times of chaos and confusion. This is especially true in families where people have substance abuse problems or dysfunctional ways of relating to each other. If this was true in your family in past years, you may always carry memories of the disappointment and upheaval that came with the holidays. Even though things may be better now, it is difficult to forget the times when your holidays were previously ruined.

It could be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). People who live in northern states may experience depression during the winter because of SAD, which results from fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter during the winter months.

Strategies for coping

While the holiday blues are usually temporary, these ideas can help make this year’s holiday experience more pleasant and less stressful.

Be realistic. Don’t expect the holiday season to solve all past problems. The forced cheerfulness of the holiday season cannot ward off sadness or loneliness.

Create your own rituals. If you have children or loved ones who come to visit, do your best to create an atmosphere that focuses on “doing” rather than “having.” Plan intentional holiday activities that emphasize relationships: bake together, read poems and stories aloud, or take walks in our beautiful mountains.

Emphasize the more spiritual aspects of your holiday and rethink the reason for the season. Attend a special holiday service (such as one the county’s many candle-lighting services), or take a drive around the country and rejoice in the bounty of the earth.

Drink less alcohol and avoid party drugs. Even though drinking alcohol gives you a temporary feeling of well-being, it is a depressant and never makes anything better. If you are already feeling down, alcohol depletes the brain of serotonin, a chemical it needs to maintain a normal mood.

Give yourself permission not to feel cheerful. Accept how you are feeling. If you have recently experienced a loss, you can’t expect yourself to put on a happy face. Tell others how you are feeling and what you need.

Have a spending limit and stick to it. Look for holiday activities that are free, such as driving around to look at holiday decorations. Go window-shopping without purchasing anything. Look for ways to show people you care without spending a lot. Make your own holiday decorations. Give homemade gifts.

Be honest. Express your feelings to those around you in a constructive, honest and open way. If you need to confront someone with a problem, begin your sentences with “I feel.”

Look for sources of support. Learn about offerings at mental health centers, churches and synagogues. Many of these have special support groups, workshops and other activities designed to help people deal with the holiday blues.

Give yourself special care. Schedule times to relax and pamper yourself. Take a warm bath or spend an evening with a good book.

Set limits and priorities. Be realistic about what you are able to accomplish. Prepare a to-do list to help you arrange your priorities.

Get some exercise. Exercise has a positive impact on depression because it boosts serotonin levels. Try to get some type of exercise at least twice each week.

Volunteer and show up where people are. If you are troubled because you won’t be seeing your family, invite close friends to be with you. Ask friends to help you donate toys or clothing to various charities, or volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Joyce Faith once said, “The mystery of being a volunteer is that lonely hearts feel useful, fearful hearts discover it isn’t so scary to encounter another person, cynical hearts learn to be hopeful and isolated hearts are warmed by community.”

For some people, holiday blues continue into the new year. This is often caused by leftover feelings of disappointment during the holiday season and being physically exhausted. The blues also happen for some people because the start of a new year is a time of reflection, which can produce anxiety.

Is it more than just the holiday blues?

Clinical depression is more than just feeling sad for a few weeks. The symptoms generally include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, having less interest in daily activities, difficulty concentrating and a general feeling of hopelessness.

Clinical depression requires professional treatment. If you are concerned that a friend or relative may be suffering from more than just holiday blues, you should express your concerns. If the person expresses thoughts of worthlessness or suicide, it is important to seek the help of a qualified mental health professional.

Barbara Adolfi, LCSW, is a licensed therapist with an office in Sperryville (540-987-8682).