Christmas — the most wonderful time of the year! Right?
Ask most children, and you’ll likely hear, “I love Christmas!” However, ask an adult, and approximately 64 percent of them (according to the National Institute of Mental Health) my say, “Not my favourite time of year,” or “I just want to go to bed and get up when it’s over!”
If you once anticipated the holidays, but now view them as something to “get through,” you’re not alone. What was once a season of excitement, magic and wonder may now stir up feelings of sadness, grief and anxiety.
What are the Holiday Blues?
Feeling blue during the holiday season is a psychological condition that is very real, but also temporary. And it can often get confused with something more serious, such as clinical depression. Here is a description from the National Institute of Mental Health:
“The holiday blues are temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays that can be associated with extra stress, unrealistic expectations or even memories that accompany the season. Symptoms may include: fatigue, tension, frustration, loneliness or isolation, sadness, and a sense of loss.”
What Causes It?
Unlike normal mood fluctuations that we all experience, the holiday blues tend to have a triggering factor, typical timeline of symptoms, and a resolution that is consistent from year to year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADs)
Do you struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SADs? SADs is a common cause of the holiday blues. Living in Ontario, Canada, my experience of winter was months of endless cold, grey days. As an adult, I noticed that a few weeks into the greyness, I would begin to feel down, less motivated, more tired and irritable.
When spring finally came with its warm sun and longer days, I would witness my mood improve. I’d have more energy, feel more hopeful and happy. The lack of sun along with grey skies can gradually lower serotonin levels that are critical for sleep and mood. Disrupted sleep, listlessness, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, anxiety, hopelessness and fatigue are some of the symptoms.
History of Anxiety or Depression
if you’ve struggled with anxiety or depression in the past, you may be susceptible to experiencing the holiday blues. High expectations of the season, perpetuated often by marketing, can be overwhelming, particularly for parents. Wanting to create the “perfect” Christmas experience with the traditions, gifts, treats, and parties can cause stress and guilt for falling short of their ideal.
Grief and Loss
One of the most common contributors to the holiday blues is grief and loss. Loss of various kinds can trigger sadness this time of year. While death of a loved one is a common source of grief, other losses, such a job loss, financial strain, a difficult health report, missing family and loneliness are some of the losses that can contribute to the holiday blues. I’ve found this to be true, as my father died just before Christmas 36 years ago. Since then, Christmas has brought up grief and sadness for me.
Christmas is supposed to be a time of hope. Jesus’ birth ushered in hope to a world that felt dark, oppressive and hopeless. However, news around the world reminds us that we continue to live in a fallen and broken world. It’s not surprising then that 64 percent of people feel lost and empty during a season that God meant to bring hope into the world. As Christians, we have access to this hope, and when we filter out the glitter and busyness, we are better able to focus on the hope of the season.
How Does It Affect Relationships?
When you are feeling sad, empty or anxious during a time when those around you are joyful and excited, you can experience another feeling… guilt. Guilt for not being able to conjure up the energy or joy to give to your spouse or family. Guilt at your family’s disappointment. And guilt for any conflict your mood causes. The guilt, along with the sadness, may make you want to withdraw even more, causing more conflict. And so the cycle of hurt begins that can threaten to derail a memorable holiday season for all. And now you’ve ruined Christmas — more guilt.
What Can Help?
Because the holiday blues are temporary, there are things you can do to help.
1. Stick to normal routines as much as possible, especially your sleep schedule.
2. Take time for yourself, but don’t isolate. Spend time with supportive, positive people. Volunteer at one of the many causes in your community or church if time permits. Push yourself to be with people often — yes, even you introverts!
3. Eat and drink in moderation. Alcohol is a depressant, so limit or eliminate, if this is you.
4. Get outside — sunshine and exercise will lift your spirits. Not only does exercise help you release the stress hormone, cortisol, it also helps release more serotonin for emotional wellbeing. If you live in an area that has limited sun, purchase a light box and sit under it for 30 to 45 minutes when you first awake. (Check out more information on how to treat SADs here.)
5. Keep things simple — set reasonable expectations for the season. The best memories are made when you’re present and engaged, not stressing over what isn’t perfect. After all, the first Christmas was the best one of all — with a baby King lying in an animal trough with serenading animals as the choir.
6. Acknowledge that you may be experiencing some loss this season. This one is important. Often just being honest with yourself about your losses can bring relief. Talk with someone or journal your thoughts and feelings. Be kind to yourself, and listen to what your body needs.
7. Avoid negative news! Instead, reflect on what has been good this year. What have you done well, what are you grateful for? Think on these things! Research shows that gratitude is a powerful antidote to depression.
8. If symptoms become debilitating, talk with a mental health professional or your doctor. Medication can help get you functioning again in the short-term.
If you struggle with the holiday blues, you’re not alone, and it’s not in your head. Keep in mind that this is short-term, so be patient with yourself and others.
And remember, better days are just ahead.