The holiday season inspires feelings of euphoria and nostalgia in some people - and feelings of dread, panic, and stress in others. How can these annual events cause such diverse responses in people? The months leading up to and following the celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, and other holiday traditions can be exhausting to our physical and mental health. How you respond to that exhaustion makes all the difference.
While some people can grin and bear it, the holiday rush leaves other folks feeling sad, overwhelmed, and cheerless, emotions that can become all the more difficult with all the cheer and celebration going on around them.
The reasons for seasonal blues are as varied as the people who go through it.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is one culprit, though it has more to do with decreased exposure to sunlight than it has to do with holiday-specific emotions. When someone experiences SAD, they have symptoms similar to clinical depression: fatigue, irritability, changes in appetite, and feelings of anxiety and sadness.
- Milder cases of winter blues strike many people. Gloomy moods match the gloomy skies, and you feel like staying under the covers when the alarm clock goes off.
- For people whose blues are linked specifically to the holidays, the reasons are often tied to stress. Our expectations of ourselves during the holidays are high: find the perfect gifts for everyone without breaking the bank; attend or organize festive parties and get-togethers; travel to see friends and family (and deal with those friends and family and all the issues that go along with that!).
- Sometimes holiday blues are connected to emotions of loss or grief - death of loved ones, a move that distances us from family and friends, or a divorce or other major life changes may make the holiday season difficult.
- There are people who feel disconnected from the holiday completely. They may hold different religious or ideological beliefs. Someone who is left out of the prevailing holidays may feel sad or lonely. Someone who doesn't subscribe to the commercialism and consumerism of the holidays, or who had bad experiences with the holidays during their childhood may feel down during the season as well.
The solutions are varied, too. Each individual will need to find their own way of coping with their emotions around the holidays. For some, the symptoms and complications may be mild and temporary. For others, the feelings may linger, worsen, or aggravate an existing condition.
Here are a few ideas for finding a little joy in spite of the holiday blues:
- Fortify yourself: When you're feeling down, you might skimp on nutrition. Some people will be tempted to dull the sting of sadness with unhealthy comfort foods or alcohol. But it's during times of stress that your body especially needs nutritious food and healthy eating habits. Even if you're very stressed or feeling down, make eating regular, healthy meals a top priority. Drink plenty of water, and think of enhancing your diet with a multivitamin.
- Relax: Feelings of anxiety and sadness take a real toll on the mind and on your overall health. Carve out a time in each day for true relaxation. But don't plop in front of the TV or huddle under your comforter. Real relaxation takes mindfulness and calm concentration. Deep breathing exercises or meditative practices can give your mind time and space to regenerate, soothing anxious nerves and hopefully energizing and resetting your mood.
- Get moving: Exercise has been noted as a great way to beat the blues. Ask a friend to be your fitness buddy and it can be a great way to strengthen friendships. Dr. Michael Sachs of Temple University remarks on the added benefit of buddying up when you workout. "The social aspect is important - it can help to uplift you, and break feelings of isolation."
- Reflect: Write in a journal or on an online blog to describe the emotions you're feeling. By analyzing your thoughts and reflecting on your mood and the reactions you're having to the approaching holidays, you may shed light on the why's of your feelings. Make a list of things about the holidays that upset you or cause you the strongest feelings of sadness. See if you notice patterns and if you can make your list actionable. Change "I hate being so far away from my parents" into a goal for next year to save up money to visit your family.
- Create your own traditions: If you feel down because of your religious or ideological opposition to the winter holidays, create your own annual traditions for this time of year. Set up a dinner party with friends, go on a trip, or involve yourself in charitable works for causes you're passionate about. Build your own niche for this time of year so you have something special to look forward to or absorb your interest.
- Seek help: There's no need for you to go it alone. If your feelings of sadness or hopelessness become more serious (i.e., if they are severe and are interfering with your work or your relationships), talk to a mental health professional. In addition to getting professional help, you can also take advantage of resources in or around your own community to help you get through a rough emotional time.