Coping With The Holiday Blues

Acknowledging Holiday Pressures and Expectations

What images come to mind when you think about the holidays?  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Gleeful children ripping open presents?  A romantic kiss at midnight? Lighting candles?  Wonderful images to be sure.  It’s funny that we don’t usually stop to consider how many of these happen rarely or maybe even only in our imagination.  Have you ever roasted a chestnut over a fire (or even eaten one)?  Been in a one-horse sleigh?  Or experienced being showered with confetti at the stroke of midnight?  Somehow it doesn’t matter whether or not the actual holiday matches up with our imaginary version of a holiday as long as we are feeling good and have things to look forward to. 

What if you are not looking forward to the holidays? What if you’re feeling disappointed, anxious, guilty or stressed?  This collection of feelings is sometimes known as the “holiday blues.”  They may be fleeting Scrooge-like irritations or more diffuse feelings of emptiness or sadness or anger that interfere with the experience of peace and joy.  You may find yourself suffering in silence while outwardly smiling. 

Please know that if you are feeling ambivalent about the holidays, you are not alone.

Who is Vulnerable to Holiday Blues?

Certain life changes are associated with the holiday blues.  Those who have lost a loved one through death or divorce/estrangement, anyone who lives alone, or those coping with illness, substance abuse, strained family relationships, unemployment (or underemployment) are more vulnerable to holiday blues. 

Coping with grief or loss at the holidays is particularly difficult.  Grieving often happens in waves and a person can feel fine one minute and then tearful, sad, overwhelmed or even numb the next.  There is no timeline for grief.  Sadness and missing a loved one are normal and can be triggered anytime, even years after a losing a significant someone.  Over a quarter (28%) of all senior citizens in North Carolina live alone so, even if you aren’t on your own for the holidays, you probably know someone who will be. 

The emphasis on family unity and togetherness at the holidays can be particularly grating for anyone who is alone at holiday time or who feels alone due to unresolved family conflict, even if others are around.  Every family has a mix of different temperaments, personalities, and interests and it is natural not to feel equally close to everyone.  Sometimes mental health problems cause someone to focus inwardly on their own emotional survival so intensely that they are unable (sometimes temporarily) to reach out to others (or lash out in criticism).  This is particularly painful when it is someone who we expect to be emotionally present to us.

Everyone knows someone who a strong family or sees pictures of perfect-looking family gatherings on Facebook, or other social media, and it is easy to feel that your family or situation (e.g., being alone for the holidays) is somehow less enjoyable.  But the pictures never show the inner emotional struggles or difficulties behind the scenes since almost everyone smiles for the camera.  John Bradshaw, an expert on family dynamics, has estimated that most families (96%) have some dysfunction at one time or another, which means that family struggles are the norm, not the exception.  This is important to keep in mind, if you are tempted to think others have a ‘better’ family or situation than you do.  Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your worst day to someone else’s best. 

People with perfectionistic tendencies also suffer, often silently, at the holidays.  They may feel driven to exhaustion to create ideal holiday treats, decorations, or gatherings, and over-extend themselves in the process.  This can lead to angry outbursts or to silent feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, particularly when others are ungrateful or children or teenagers are reluctant or uncooperative with the festivities.  Expectations that holiday food be made from scratch, every child be filled with wonder, or that a present must be the exact model or color requested are simply unrealistic. 

So, how do you cope with all of these feelings when it’s the holidays and you want everything to be simply wonderful?  Or just feel good. How do you help the holiday blues?

Emotion-Focused Coping Strategies

1)    Know that you are not alone.  Many people experience the holiday blues.  You may be surrounded by happy, smiling people, but chances are that there are others who are experiencing the same thing.  It can be comforting to remind yourself that that there are likely many, many others experiencing similar feelings.

2)    Identify what you are feeling.  Loneliness, hurt, anger, sadness, loss, disappointment in family are all normal human emotions and are often related to circumstances beyond our control.  Putting a name to a feeling may help you come up with a solution or strategy for it.  Or maybe even laugh at the image of a Krampus or Scrooge.  Whatever you are experiencing, maintain a non-judgmental attitude of acceptance towards yourself. 

3)    Exercise self-compassion.  Speak to yourself as you would a friend.  A good friend would not try to talk you out of your feelings but would listen respectfully, then offer some type of reassurance or comfort.  Some people find it helpful to repeat “this too shall pass” or some other positive mantra to help get through those difficult moments.   

4)    Self-care and setting boundaries is important during the holidays.  Identify self-soothing or stress-releasing activities that help you take care of yourself.  Exercising, relaxing, saying “no” to activities that are not meaningful, eating nutritious, healthy foods, and giving yourself opportunity to sleep are as essential as decking the halls. 

5)    Reach out.  Being isolated can increase any negative feeling.  Reach out to someone, ideally, someone who you can share your feelings with.  Call an old friend or reach out to a new one in an effort to strengthen connections.  It’s a good idea to challenge yourself to try something new.  Maybe a certain friend has always contacted you and you are waiting for their call?  They may need you to reach out and ask how they are  Some older people believe that younger relatives should call them first and they sit by the phone waiting.  Why not take a risk and be the one to reach out?  People who have a good social support network are active in cultivating that support and often make multiple efforts.  Use Skype to keep in touch with loved ones who are far away.  Another option for older adults (60+) who are experiencing isolation and need a friendly conversation is to call the Friendship Line at 1-800-971-0016, which is available 24/7. 

6)    Cultivate appreciation and mindfulness.  Often negative feelings arise from unfavorable social comparisons (“That family is so much better than mine”) or thoughts of despair (“I’ll always be alone/broke/in pain”).  To combat these tendencies, take stock of what you do have.  Find something to be grateful for in the moment.  Sometimes the simplest positive thought can break up a blue mood (“At least snow is better than freezing rain” or “I’m going to be alright”).  Have a bite of a holiday treat and pay very close attention to how really good it is.  Some people find it helpful to recall positive holiday moments and replay these memories.  Others find it helpful to create a gratitude list or count their blessings. 

7)    If the holiday blues persist, seek professional help.  If doing some of these simple techniques on your own are not enough to break up the holiday blues, you may be clinically depressed.  Do yourself a favor a seek help sooner rather than later.  Depression can become worse over time, if untreated, and you don’t want to miss out on the positive parts of the holiday season!

By Lisa J. Ficker, Ph.D., HSP-P