Everybody is Happy During the Holidays, Right?
Published in Metrowest Lifestyle Magazine - December 2003
By Jennifer Ferrell-Hanington, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”
“Come to our pre-Holiday Sale!! Buy now at our pre-holiday prices!!
These are only some of the messages that bombard us during the holiday season, bringing images of an ideal season of traditions or reminding us that it is time to spend more money for all the gifts that we believe we are expected to buy. For some individuals, these visions are joyful, hopeful and elicit feelings of joy. For others, the holidays may represent a time of loss, loneliness, reflections on past failures, or anxieties about an uncertain future.
The associated stress, whether positive or negative, can create difficulties for some people. Demands on our time and energy consist of shopping, decorating, planning or attending parties and entertaining family and houseguests. If we do not take care of ourselves, symptoms may appear such as increased frustration, fatigue and sleep disturbance. For individuals who are susceptible to feelings of depression or anxiety, the additional stress may exacerbate those symptoms. While stress is not inherently bad for us, it is important that we develop a means of properly managing holiday stress.
Acknowledge and honor your limitations. It is important for each of us to make time for ourselves instead of taking care of and providing for everyone else. Even though this is a special time of the year, it is impossible to put our lives on hold or completely rearrange our schedules. Should we try, it will likely produce additional stress and time constraints.
Place less focus on spending money. You will be less stressed if you set a spending limit and avoid increasing debt. Be careful to avoid the over-commercialization of the season. Remember that a gift does not need to be expensive to express your love and consideration for another. For children who want everything (that is, most children), it is an important lesson to learn that some toys may be too expensive, or that Santa Claus has limited funds. The lesson that they cannot receive everything they want will teach them to learn that instant gratification is unrealistic.
Enjoy holiday activities that are free such as driving around to look at holiday decorations. Go window-shopping without buying anything. Participate in holiday festivities in your community.
If you are able to be more realistic, it may mean changing your expectations about how you celebrate the season. It can be disappointing when the holidays are not the same as they used to be. Life, however, brings change. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. Start creating your own unique, and maybe very nontraditional, traditions.
Know your emotional needs
For someone who is depressed or grieving, it can be difficult pretending to be happy and joyful around others. One may decide to decline invitations to some of the festivities. Unfortunately, isolation is unlikely to be helpful, either. Spend time with supportive and caring people. This is one of the most important times for the depressed individual to communicate his or her needs and ask for understanding.
Should one be alone after a loss or be separated from family, remember that it is natural to experience feelings of sadness, loss and grief. You can take whatever time you need to work through your feelings, and you are not expected to jump back into the routine. Yet, it is important to take care of yourself and avoid self-destructive behaviors, such as overeating or abusing alcohol. Maintain a certain amount of activity, such as exercise, or seeking out entertainment, such as going to the movies or the theater. Consider whether you may enjoy decorating, even if it is only for you. If possible, reach out by contacting those with whom you have lost touch. Do something that may create new friends. Rather than giving in to the loneliness, consider volunteering at a nursing home, hospital or church. It has been shown that helping others can help us feel better when we are lonely or sad.
The holidays can be a difficult time even when we spend it with family, especially if there is family conflict. You can decide whether or not being with family is more stressful than making your own plans. If you decide to be with family, carefully choose your battles and try to avoid provoking tension or arguments. Remember, you don’t have to be a part of family gatherings, and if you go, you can arrive late or leave early. You decide.
If you are unable to overcome your sadness or anxiety, leading to significant disruption in your daily functioning, you may be suffering from more than just the “holiday blues”. You may want to consider seeking the assistance of a mental health professional to help you assess your difficulties and determine whether treatment is necessary.