‘Tis the Season To Be Miserable

Mental health during winter holidays

Posted Dec 28, 2015

There’s been a longstanding myth that suicides increase during the winter. If you were reading really quickly, you might have thought I wrote “a longstanding truth.” Nope. It’s not true that suicides increase at this time of year.

What does go up is stress.

If your family relationships present challenges, the holidays don’t mean long-awaited intergenerational visits with beloved folks, but getting ready to spend multiple days with people who shake your sense of self.

If you struggle with food or drink, attending 10 holiday parties in six weeks isn’t festive, but terrifying.

If you have anxiety about traveling, or spending money, or giving the perfect gift, this time is going to get to you.

And, as I write this post as we approach the turn of a new year, if you’re feeling like the last year was the worst and you’re trying to think of one thing you could possibly resolve to try to make things better - and you’re coming up with nothing - you’re not alone.

There really is nothing quite like this time of year, with so many expectations for us to be our most sparkly selves, to fill our homes with light, and reflect on what we could do differently or better. There’s so much buildup - and so much letdown. There’s so much to be hopeful for, and so much that can just crush us.

It’s not realistic for anyone to keep up joy for the weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year. But, if you’re working with any vulnerability (and who among us isn’t, really?), this time can be particularly hard.

What are some strategies for coping?


One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came right before my wedding day, which, not unlike the holiday season, was a collection of triggers cleverly disguised as a joyful occasion.

The advice was to imagine that, over my wedding dress, I was wearing a bright yellow raincoat and rain hat and that I was holding a bright yellow umbrella. Whenever someone said something to me that sought to penetrate my waterproof cloak of positivity, I could remember that what they said couldn’t get to me. It couldn’t wreck my dress, or my hair, and if things got really awful, I could always imagine that I was poking that person in the eye with the tip of my umbrella. (I’m embellishing a bit.)

Seriously, that advice got me through my wedding. It sounds so light and so flimsy, but visualization can work. If the raincoat-hat-umbrella thing doesn’t do it for you, you can try something else. What trips us up at times of stress is that, when we’re worn out, it’s easier to get pulled right into the depths of emotion, and before we know it, it feels like we’re drowning. Having something that you can use to focus your attention, shift out of emotion, and move toward where you want to be can help.

Take Control Of Your Schedule

The ability to forget that we do have control over some parts of our lives is severely challenged when one or more parts feel like they’re slipping out of control. If you don’t want to go to 10 holiday parties, pick the ones you do want to go to (there must be one!?) and politely decline the rest. If you have to spend time with challenging family, cushion the challenge by scheduling something that you do enjoy to help recover. Having a plan to can help create a feeling of being in control even if a lot of what’s going on is actually not within your control.

Know You’re Not Alone

This year in particular, I found strength in knowing that feeling less than happy during the holiday season is actually quite normal. There’s something very powerful to be said for knowing you’re not alone. When I asked friends if it was too late to write about mental health and the holiday season, I was heartily assured that there’s a lot of material here: Quite a few people hid under the covers the day after Christmas; anyone missing a loved one feels that loss more strongly; sometimes all of that “togetherness” can make us feel very lonely.

So many times in the past year, I’ve heard the importance of “finding your tribe,” which I’ve taken to mean finding the people who make you feel comfortable and true. At a time when you may feel like what you’re feeling is wrong (doesn’t everyone want to be with family/go to parties/find the perfect gift?), know that it just can’t be wrong if so many people are feeling it. There’s a whole tribe of people who are having a hard time. May that truth be a comfort to you.

You can be a part of a more authentic representation of life during this season. As you head back to “real life” after the holidays, give yourself permission to be honest when people ask, “How were your holidays?”

Copyright 2015 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved