Not all days are merry and bright: Mental health experts weigh in on beating the holiday blues
Phillip Bock / USA TODAY NETWORK
While songs of joy permeate the air and uplifting tales of love and spirit dance across television screens, for many the reality of the holidays is much less cheerful.
Financial pressures, unrealistic expectations, family dysfunction and short days all can lead to seasonal holiday depression dubbed the “Holiday Blues.”
A 2004 survey by the American Psychological Association found that one in five Americans worried holiday stress could affect their physical health. Another survey found that half of all women in the United States experience heightened stress during the holidays.
“Temporary anxiety, especially during the holidays, can be associated with the extra stress, unrealistic expectations, and memories that may accompany the season,” said Kate Baer, director of Mental Health America in Sheboygan. “This cheer and joy is not truly reality to who we are as human beings. There should be acceptance that it’s OK to feel lonely, sadness and frustration.”
The holiday blues can affect different people in different ways, but mental health professionals say there are proactive steps people can take to help make it through the season.
1. Set realistic goals
The holiday season is filled with celebrations, social gatherings and parties, which can feel burdensome and overwhelming. The pressure of Christmas commercialism, spending money and finding that perfect gift, paired with an obligations of being social can lead to a stressful season.
A survey by the APA found that 61 percent of Americans listed lack of money as their top cause of holiday stress, followed by the pressures of gift giving, lack of time and credit card debt.
Experts say to set reasonable expectations of what you can do — and don’t be afraid to leave a gathering early if you start to feel overwhelmed.
“If you have depression or anxiety and are going to a big family gathering, think through what you can do ahead of time,” Baer said. “It’s OK to take a breath and a walk. It’s OK to stay only as long as you can.”
Overspending and gift giving can also be a source of stress and anxiety as Christmas draws near. Holiday joy can drain away with each card swipe as carefully crafted budgets give way to an obligation to buy gifts.
Be honest with yourself about your limitation and set a budget that won’t break the bank.
“If you are in a place of financial struggle, your kids will overcome and will eventually see the true meaning of the holiday season, whatever that is for each family,” Baer said.
2. Surround yourself with support
Whether grieving the loss of a loved one or feeling the stress and anxiety of the season piling on, don’t be afraid to seek social support and tell others how you feel.
Surround yourself with groups of people who you enjoy and who understand what you are going through. Choose to attend the gatherings where you’ll feel more comfortable.
Support groups can also be safe spaces to share in grief and sadness. Various churches, grief groups and hospitals hold support sessions during the holidays. Google “support groups” to find sessions in your area.
3. Be thankful
Don’t plan on the story-book Christmas; instead be mindful of your reasons to give thanks with a “gratitude journal,” Baer said.
“Just write down three things a day, simple or complex, that you’re grateful for,” she said. “It can be something as simple as being grateful for the color green, or being thankful for the people who put up Christmas lights.”
Stress and anxiety can take a toll; make an effort to eat well, get rest and find time to reflect, pray or meditate, Baer said. Consider seeking counseling services from a professional or reach out to a crisis hotline if the season becomes overwhelming.
“Anxiety doesn’t discriminate against the holidays,” Baer said. “If you have a family member who struggles, check in on them.”
4. Allow time to grieve
Holiday gatherings can be especially tough on those grieving the loss of a loved one. Surrounding yourself with support can help.
“Serve your soul. I think that our grief is sacred space and we are particularly vulnerable,” said Lee Mitchler, a social worker at Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice in Sheboygan Falls. “If the gathering is with people who can hold that space with you, that’s a good place to be.”
“When you’re around people you love and feel loved and empowered, the joy sneaks out,” said Pastor Marianne Brandt, bereavement coordinator at Sharon S. Richardson Community Hospice. “You almost have to give them permission to do that — to laugh and to sing.”
Leave time to grieve, and consider starting a new tradition that honors a loved one’s memory. Light a candle or give a toast in their name, make their favorite dish, or take time during a gathering to have people share a happy memory of the deceased.
“We feel grief because we love,” Mitchler said. “There is a sadness because that love is not present in the same way before. But also connected to that love are feelings of joy and happiness. Those feelings honor those that we have lost. It’s important to feel that spectrum of healing.”