“It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “be of good cheer.”
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
So many people go bonkers for the holidays. Between Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving, Christmas shopping, Christmas tree decoration, gift wrapping, holiday office parties, ugly Christmas sweater contests, Hanukah, and holiday travel, it can be exciting for most but very stressful for others. As we just finished wrapping up Thanksgiving, we are now in full-fledged Christmas mode; houses have lights strung on their roofs, holiday music is playing in every store, and Christmas tree lots are busier than ever.
What if the holiday season is not the most wonderful time of the year for you? Maybe you are struggling with loneliness or are grieving a family member. Perhaps you are struggling financially and are not able to purchase gifts this year. It could be that being around family during the holidays is a trigger for your addiction or eating disorder. Other common triggers for holiday sadness include stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, and over-commercialization. Many individuals find the holidays intolerable for many reasons, especially if they suffer from “holiday depression.” Of course, you do not want to be the downer or the bah humbug of your friend or family circle, so how do you find common ground, if the holidays are not your cup of tea?
The term holiday depression is used in mainstream society and is not recognized by mental health professionals. However, therapists do agree that depression and anxiety tend to heighten during the holiday season and this most likely why our society has coined this catchy phrase, holiday depression". The demands and stress of the holidays and the expectations to be happy can make an individual feel even more depressed, especially if he/she is already struggling with a mood disorder.
The holidays can also be a trigger for individuals who struggle with seasonal depression, a class of depression that is recognized by mental health experts and physicians. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a seasonal depression that peaks in the winter months due to shorter days and decreased sunlight. Decreased levels of serotonin, increased levels of melatonin, low levels of vitamin D, and a disruption in circadian rhythms are known triggers of seasonal affective disorder. Individuals who live in colder, snowy areas and areas that are farther from the equator are more at risk for seasonal affective disorder.
The treatment for seasonal affective disorder consists of a combination of anti-depressants and lightbox therapy. Treating and preventing “holiday depression” can be a little more complicated and involve lifestyle modifications and personal responsibility. The following are ways to help manage or prevent “holiday depression”:
- Set realistic expectations: Instead of attending a handful of holiday parties, only commit to one, or maybe skip the holiday parties altogether this year. Having high hopes for the holidays can be stressful and can potentially cause you to spiral. It is perfectly okay to stay home, not making any plans, and do what makes you feel happy.
- Avoid triggering family members: Maybe you have an uncle who makes jokes about your sexual orientation or who does not respect your sobriety. Maybe there are one or two family members who continuously shame your views of politics or religion. There is absolutely no rule stating you must spend time with these people, even around the holidays. If you have family members that are triggering and cause you a lot of stress, then avoid them, even if it means skipping out on the family gathering. Your mental health will benefit from this.
- Being alone is okay: Maybe this is your first holiday alone, and you don’t want to decorate the tree by yourself; you should do it anyway. If you enjoy holiday decorations, then you should spend time enjoying decorating your home and a tree. Turn on some Christmas music or movies and enjoy yourself. The same goes for making cookies, cooking Christmas dinner, and wrapping gifts. You are capable of doing all of these festivities alone, especially if it brings you joy.
- Travel: Maybe you want to skip the holidays altogether and go out of town to get away and reflect. Traveling is always a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
- Talk to a therapist: Maybe this is your first holiday without your spouse or your children. This time of year can be especially triggering if you are still grieving a loved one. Talking to a mental health expert about your feelings can help you from becoming self-destructive during this time of year. It can also give you coping skills that can help you process your grief.
Ultimately it is up to you to decide how you are going to spend this holiday season. Our society puts a lot of pressure on us during this time of year, but it is essential to take the time and space to decide what makes you happy. This holiday season will pass, regardless of how you spend it. Your life will never be dictated by how you spent the holidays. Be sure to take each day as it comes and remember that it is okay if this is not “your most wonderful time of the year.”
Getting a bit personal
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. This year was my second year in a row, not celebrating Thanksgiving (or Christmas). I love spending time with my family, cooking and eating fantastic food, and hanging out all day in our pajamas. Unfortunately, last year, I was working abroad in Tanzania, and this year, my family celebrated the holiday in Florida while I was stuck in a snowstorm back home in Mammoth. Did this make me sad? Yes. However, last year, I went on an African safari on Thanksgiving Day, and this year, I went skiing with my dog. I have learned that I can sit on my couch and feel sorry for myself, or I can spend time doing things that I love, even if it means that I am away from my friends and family. There are always coping strategies for people who are forced to spend the holiday alone, and sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to bring that joy back into your life.