The holidays are painted to be a time of love and cheer, but for many people, the winter months and the close of another year can be tough. The gloomy weather can wear on us. Family visits can prove taxing. And painful feelings can surface, especially with the memory of lost loved ones or the simple realization of the passing of time. Many of us tend to attach meaning to the holidays that adds extra pressure to our experiences and can set us up to feel disappointment, anxiety, or sadness. So what are some of the reasons we get down at the close of the year and how can we take a proactive approach to staying positive?
In the winter season, symptoms of stress and depression may increase, with many suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal of the National Institutes of Mental Health, “Six percent of the US population… is affected by SAD in its most marked form.” Yet, “another 14 percent of the adult US population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues.” Whether you’re among the millions who struggle with mild to severe cases of “winter blues” or you merely find yourself falling into bad moods over the holidays, here are some tips on how to counter some of the seasonal hurdles that may be dragging you down.
1) Keep Active - Cold and dark weather can make us drowsy and discourage us from being physically active. A lack of energy can be a drain on your mood, so to counter this state, it’s important to engage in exercise or other physical activities that release endorphins and boost your energy levels. Studies show that aerobic exercise can be a proven tool to fight depression, so make sure to set some time aside to get your body moving.
2) Stay on Your Own Side - Be wary of self-critical thoughts that tend to crop up during the holiday season and end of the year. “You don’t even have a date for this party. You are just going to wind up alone.” “Another year has gone by, and you have nothing to show for it. You are so pathetic.” These cruel thoughts make up your “critical inner voice.” This inner enemy evolves out of painful early life experiences, in which we internalized destructive attitudes. As adults, we act out these self-punishing attitudes by listening to our critical inner voice.
It is essential that we get to know our inner critic and that we catch on when it starts to get louder in our minds. We must identify this voice as the enemy it truly is and act against its sabotaging directives. If it lures us to isolate ourselves with thoughts like “You’re better off alone. No one wants you around anyway,” we should seek out friends. If it tells us to break that New Year’s resolution with thoughts like “You’re weak. Just give up already,” we must persevere. In challenging our inner voice, we want to take a kind attitude toward ourselves.
3) Get to Know Your Patterns – One of the most valuable questions for people to ask themselves when they feel down is “What am I telling myself in those moments when I start to feel stressed or depressed?” Very often, there is a pattern to our mood swings that is crucial to identify and interrupt. The moment when our mood starts to plummet can be a sign that our critical inner voice is at work. It’s important to catch on to the ways we are triggered emotionally. A tantrum from one of our kids can spark a scenario from our childhood. A mean comment from a parent can leave us full of self-doubt. Even the weather may alter our mood.
Once we start indulging in the cyclical thinking that drives us to spiral downward, we have to find a way to emerge from this state. When we see a pattern in our thinking, we can stop ourselves from acting out in ways that make us feel worse. For example, a relative of mine noticed that the anticipation of meeting his girlfriend’s parents over the holidays was weighing on him. The mere thought of facing their judgment left him full of self-critical thoughts that her parents would think he was a “nobody” and wasn’t good enough for their daughter. He realized that ever since he was little, meeting new people always set off his critical inner voice. By catching onto this pattern, he was able to relax a little and stand up to these negative thoughts.
4) Choose Your “Family Time” - Family time may sound relaxing and joyful, but not all holiday visits are filled with warmth and affection. Time spent with our families can reactivate old dynamics and stir up old emotional reactions. Depending on where we are at in our lives, seeing our families can ignite feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or anger. Little criticisms from a parent may not seem like a big deal, but they may rekindle feelings of hurt from our childhood. A friend of mine described how she and her mother were bonding over recipes they both enjoyed, when out of nowhere, her mother started injecting little digs into their conversation. “That cake of yours is delicious, but you should be careful eating things like that. You can’t eat likea teenager anymore, you know?” These cutting comments may have seemed harmless or even comical to an outsider, but for my friend, the criticism set her back into an emotional childhood state, in which her mother was continually cruel and competitive with her.
Don’t feel guilty to choose the time you spend with your family, and remember, that the time you do spend with them is likely to arouse past emotions. If we go into seeing our family aware of our reactions, we can make conscious choices to differentiate ourselves from old dynamics and behaviors that lead us to feel bad. By staying aware of our patterns, we are less likely to act in ways we disapprove of, regressing to childish states or becoming moody. Remember that the holidays are a time to be around the people we love. As author and journalist Edna Buchanan said, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” This holiday season, seek out places you that make you feel good and surround yourself with people who keep you positive.
5) Keep a Balance – Many of us have obligations over the holidays from every end of the spectrum, from the distant relatives we visit to the odd hours we work. It’s essential to be considerate of yourself. Although, it can be easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of shopping lists and dinner menus, it’s important to stay close to your emotions. Be aware of the feelings that come up; be compassionate in allowing yourself feel them fully; and be mindful in not letting them to take over. Depression can arise when we resist feeling pain, sadness, or anger directly. Seek out friends, relatives, or counselors who you can talk to about the emotions this time of year can trigger. Then, as a positive exercise, design a “holiday-of-choice,” in which you decide who you spend your time with and where you go. Even if this means setting aside one night to have dinner with friends or to spend a quiet evening with your partner or spouse, it’s important to engage in activities that make you feel in touch with your true self.
No matter what is causing our “winter blues,” it is important to stay on our own side and have faith that these moods can and will pass. Almost all (even severe) cases of depression are both transient and treatable. To fight these battles, we must believe in our own resilience, in our ability to tolerate pain and to overcome the inevitable hurdles life brings. By challenging our inner critic and differentiating from destructive past influences, we can establish our sense of self and create the life we want to lead. No matter what the season, we all experience dark times, but we can come out the other end stronger within ourselves.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone on Jan. 18-20 for the weekend workshop retreat, “Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice” at the beautiful Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. Learn more here.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.