Are There Really Holiday Blues?

Some professionals claim there is no such thing as “holiday blues.” That is surely not my experience. It begins each year from Thanksgiving and passes sometime after New Year‘s day and for certain of my clients it can be all too real. Those who suffer from depression may become more depressed; those with anxiety may become more anxious, often temporarily setting back the progress they are making to feel better about themselves and their lives.

They alert me to it with comments like “I hate Thanksgiving.” “I hate Christmas” or “This time of year is always really difficult for me.” The results they describe may include headaches, insomnia, ginger-bread-for-holiday-bloguneasiness, increased anxiety, deeper sadness, intestinal problems, and unnecessary conflict with family and friends.

Here are the some of the common reasons they tell me for feeling worse this time a year:

  • They may be reminded of their absence of family and friends who have passed away or become estranged and they dread being alone once again when others are gathering with loved ones. Or they may be distressed about the prospect of spending this time with people who are not special to them but have kindly offered to include them from what feels like “charity.”
  • This time of year may remind them that they can’t afford the things they would like to do and feel guilty or like a failure in life. Regretting for example that” “I can’t buy presents.” “I can’t give children the Christmas I’d like to.” “I can’t afford to travel to family gatherings.”
  • They may be reminded that their mental and physical ailments prevent them from doing what would make for a pleasant holiday, i.e. “I can’t travel anymore, get out to shop, have the energy to bake, decorate or help out.”
  • They might feel pressured to engage with family they’d rather avoid and face unpleasant family dramas or anticipated emotional abuse from family members they have learned how to steer clear of at other times a year.
  • They may like they are in a no-win situation, torn between obligations they dread but feel are incumbent upon them, i.e. “My mother would be crushed if I just stayed home this year.”
  • The holidays might bring memories of many past disappointments at this time of year, i.e. they anticipate a re-run of family discord; parents who were too drunk; cutting remarks, put downs, slights, rejections; tense relationships, burdensome expectations.
  • Anxiety and burnout may overwhelm them as they try to “keep it together” in the midst the many things they think they must do in addition to their already busy, exhausting lives.
  • Anniversary grief is also a big one. “We found out about dad’s cancer the week before Christmas.” “Another Christmas without my mother.” “My son was killed during Christmas week five years ago and it’s ruined the holidays for us.”

Of course, these reactions can provide many opportunities for important resolution and positive problem-solving in counseling, but when this is what holidays bring it is certainly not a myth. If you’re plagued by holiday blues, here are some suggestions for things we can do to make holidays as pleasant as possible.

  • Don’t talk yourself into how “terrible” it’s going to be by dwelling on the worst memories or reviewing how bad it’s been before. Focus on what you might do to make it better this year.
  • Avoid the romanticized Hallmark card, Currier and Yves view of the holidays as a magical time when all is merry and bright and filled with comfort and joy. Be realistic. That is a nostalgic fantasy. The holidays don’t have to a cookie-cutter version of tradition. Focus on what you would like them to mean to you.Don’t get stuck in “have to’s” and “musts.” You truly do have choices. Defining what is positive and possible to you to do during the holidays is part of growing into a mature adult. You don’t need to do what others expect you to do. Don’t let possibly disappointing or angering them trap you into another miserable time. Just be kind but clear in letting others know your plans.
  • Open your mind to all the possibilities for what the holidays mean to you. It doesn’t have to be about shopping, food, decorations, presents and family. Maybe it’s phone calls instead of visits; or short visits instead of a full day or week commitments. Or maybe it’s something totally different from the past.
  •  Be honest. For some, the holidays actually don’t mean anything other than some time off or “Just another day.” If that is true for you, embrace it. For others it’s actually about the religious significance of the holidays. For some simply relaxing, or spending time with those you’d really enjoy being with. Maybe that isn’t with family, but friends. Or maybe a time for just you and a significant other. Or perhaps you’d like to take a trip, visit the grave of a loved one or volunteer to help others.
  • Creating positive holiday may mean learning to say “no” to unreasonable or undesired demands and expectations from others. Avoid using the holiday to make decisions that “settle old scores” or to raise hot-button issues with friends or family. Let such things remain as they’ve been the rest of the year. Handle them at some other time if you wish without besmirching the holidays.
  • Don’t abuse yourself. Whatever options you choose for the holiday season, keep up your healthy habits. Holidays needn’t be an excuse to overindulge or take up bad habits. Monitor your energy so you don’t take on so much that you become frazzled or overwhelmed. Don’t let yourself get buried in holiday debt by spending money you don’t or won’t have. Stay within your means. It’s the thought that counts not the amount. As much as possible maintain your usual eating, sleeping, and exercising schedule. Don’t gorge yourself or binge on too many fatty foods or sweets. There really is such a thing as Sugar Blues.
  • If you are feeling seriously depressed or unable to function adequately, do seek out professional help—you don’t want the “holiday blues” to morph into a major depression during the post-holiday period.

Here’s to Having Yourself a Happy, Healthy Holiday Season!