Not Everyone Enjoys the Holidays

Here are tips for managing when "holiday cheer" just brings you down.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

There are many reasons that some might dread the winter holidays, and the reasons fall into a variety of categories.

More Effort Than It’s Worth?

The first is made up of people who feel that the holidays require too much time, too much energy, too many expectations, and too little return on the investment of all of these things—not so much a “financial return,” but an inadequate “emotional return.” Some people dread the work and obligations that the holidays bring.

Thoughts of all of the shopping, preparing, visiting, overspending, and “performing” that the holidays require may simply overwhelm some of us. Even when a person, couple, or family decides to “go minimalist,” they may risk hurting the feelings of those with whom they are expected to "go big” at this time.

Holiday Hypocrisy?

For some people, the forced cheer and goodwill expressed during the holidays—but not during the remainder of the year—may come across as the epitome of hypocrisy. Acknowledging appreciation through a holiday gift or bonus tip once a year can be viewed as a poor showing of gratitude for service that should be rewarded more fairly the other 51 weeks of the year. Others may feel that families may put on a good show of harmony and acceptance during the holiday season, but revert back to close-minded intolerance once the New Year begins. Instances of hypocritical behavior, false kindness, or fake gratitude can turn some people off celebrations altogether.

Empty Places at the Table and Overflowing Feelings of Grief

There are also people who are mourning the loss of loved ones, and the holidays can be especially challenging for these individuals. Everything about the holidays screams, “Family!” or “Tradition!” And for those whose families are missing a member, it can be challenging to celebrate a holiday when a major player has passed away.

For others, the holidays serve as a reminder that someone is absent from their lives due to breakups, divorce, distance, or some other reason. The holidays are times when many older adults may feel more isolated and alone than during any other time of year. Commercials, TV specials, and movies all focus on a sense of “togetherness” and “altruism” that should mark this time of year, but not everyone is lucky enough to have a family, intimate friend group, or neighbors to ensure that they feel a sense of connection and belonging.

Depression—Seasonal or Perennial

Sometimes the shortening days can contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder; this is a type of depression that is related to inadequate daylight exposure. It begins in autumn, and by the time mid- to late-December arrive, the days have reached their shortest length.

Lastly, there are people who experience depression regardless of the season, and the high expectations regarding “good cheer and joy” create even greater pressure on everyone to “show up,” but those who suffer from depression may be driven to hide out even more securely to avoid scrutiny and to avoid being judged for their depression.

Tips for Managing the Holidays When You Feel There’s Nothing to Celebrate

If you feel the need to withdraw from social life and being around others during the holidays, don’t give in too completely to those feelings. Self-isolating can become a dangerous habit that gives you time to ruminate and focus on the negative feelings that you have—and the more you ruminate on unpleasant topics, the more depressed you are likely to feel.

Despair endured solo tends to feed itself, so force yourself to engage with others—whether it’s accepting an invitation from friends or family or attending a faith service or stopping by the grocery store and engaging in small talk with other shoppers or the cashier. Even small efforts at engagement can pay off in helping a person stay connected with others.

Find a reason to feel gratitude and a way to express your gratitude, even if only in a journal. Focusing on the positive events in life spurs the production of dopamine and serotonin, two natural anti-depressants. Even if you feel hard-pressed to find any reason to be grateful, just the act of seeking the good in life can be effective in helping your brain to switch its focus to the positive, not just the negative aspects of life.

If you’re experiencing dread, reluctance, or pain as the holidays approach, take a moment to label or name your feelings. When we feel ambivalence and ambiguous anxiety, we may have trouble functioning; however, by identifying our feelings, we are taking charge of our emotions, and this can actually help us feel more able to cope.

While the longer evenings seem to give us permission to curl up on the couch with a tin of cookies or a tumbler or two of holiday cheer in liquid form, don’t give in to temptation. Binge eating and binge drinking are both unwise and detrimental to your physical and mental well-being.

If you’re experiencing the holiday blues due to the loss, for whatever reason, of someone you loved, it can be difficult to “get over it” when the holidays are so focused on togetherness and love. If you’re coping with a broken relationship, don’t dwell on the past or the once-hoped-for future or thoughts of revenge. Focus on self-care and moving forward into a future that you create one step and day at a time. Wipe out your ex’s contact information from your phone so that you don’t fall into the trap of making a “holiday desperation” call.

If you’re bereaved, honor the person who has passed away by continuing a tradition that was important to that person. Create a new tradition in memory of that special person, too. Light a candle in their honor. Make or purchase a new holiday ornament or decoration that reflects the personality of the person who has died, and honor this person every year as you hang it up. Create a favorite dish of that person, and either share it with those you love or share it with others who are in need.

Self-help measures for depression include making sure you eat a healthy diet—making sure you’re getting your “five a day” of fruits and vegetables actually serves to protect against depression. Get daily exercise, even if you have to force yourself. Physical activity can spur the production of endorphins, and it also promotes nerve growth which generates new neural connections.

Exercise can also grow the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that regulates motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. For people with depression, this part of the brain tends to be smaller than that of those who are not depressed. Exercise can help pump it up, which can pump up your mood, too.

Almost everyone feels an inordinate amount of pressure to construct the “perfect holiday,” but the most important aspect of any holiday is the meaning that it holds for you and those to whom you are close. While television programming and infomercials try to convince that the way to “perfect the holidays” is through the separation of us from our money or through hours attempting to create the perfect touch/taste/product, we should remember that those things are for show, not for reality.

Do You Need to Seek Professional Assistance?

Feeling a little down at the holidays is normal—you’re often running on little rest, an irregular diet, an erratic schedule, and high expectations to be of good cheer. No matter what. All of these take a toll on our well-being, mental and physical, and it’s natural to feel yourself getting cranky, irritated, exhausted, and down. Once the demands of our family-of-creation, family-of-origin, extended family, faith community, work colleagues, and even friends begin to pile up, we may feel the need to escape or retreat.

Feeling something and actually doing something are two different things. When you find yourself hiding out from life, or if it’s harder and harder to force yourself out of bed and harder to keep your commitments or fulfill daily obligations, then you may need to take a good look at your behavior and evaluate whether what you’re feeling is something more than just “holiday blues and holiday fatigue.” If these feelings are intensifying, and the weight of handling the routine tasks of daily life has grown too heavy to handle, it may be time to reach out for professional help.

Periods of exhaustion are normal; days spent in bed avoiding others are not. Finding yourself a bit sad when you think of someone who will not be present during the holiday is normal, as would be a few tears or a bit of weeping; being unable to function or experiencing uncontrollable crying would not be “normal.”

If your sadness or holiday blues are causing problems or disruption with your work, your relationships, or your family, it’s time to seek assistance. When others keep asking you, “Are you OK?” or comment that, “You don’t seem like yourself,” and this has been going on for a fortnight or more, it’s also a sign that you might benefit from reaching out for professional help.

Feeling stressed, feeling down, feeling overwhelmed, or feeling exhausted are all relatively “normal” feelings during the winter holidays, but when these feelings feel insurmountable, and they are keeping you from functioning in your normal manner, it’s time to reach out.