Though the year-end holiday season inspires feelings of warmth, belonging, connection and joy for many people, there are other individuals for whom this time is one of increased stress, sadness, anxiety, loneliness and depression. The Urban Dictionary calls this a blue Christmas: “A sad Christmas, perhaps because you are away from family or alone, or even filled with thoughts of a happier time that brings tears to your eye.”
While there is no single reason why many experience holiday depression, this time of year does seem to contain these triggers for sadness: family conflict and dysfunction, heightened feelings of loneliness, additional expense, travel, unrealistic happiness expectations, changes in diet and, in some places, blast furnace temperatures that have us huddling inside with the AC. Here are 10 tips for dealing with holiday sadness.
#1. Plan ahead
Rather than stumble into the year-end and be manipulated by the many events and pressures of the season, pause and plan for the best way to be engaged with holiday festivities. Conduct an examination of your feelings and thoughts by asking these types of questions:
- Who do I want to be with?
- Do I need to be at this event?
- Which person(s) would be best kept at a distance?
- How much money is realistic for me to spend?
- Which gatherings do I truly wish to participate in?
- What steps can I take to maintain balance during this time?
- Do I really need to travel this long distance to be with family and friends?
Raising and responding to these types of enquiries will create holiday clarity and guide you to experience this time in a way that is more beneficial. Establishing your boundaries will empower you to respond skillfully to any individual who protests or challenges your decision saying, “Of course you’ll be there!”
#2. Be mindful
“The way to stop perpetuating the habits that cause us unnecessary suffering is to bring mindfulness and awareness to all aspects of our lives,” says writer Karen Kissel Wegela. Try to anticipate which persons and what events may bring out the negative. Cultivating mindfulness and awareness can help ease potential tensions.
Psychologist Deborah Serani offers this insight: “Family conflicts can resurface during the holiday season. Try to avoid falling into old behavioural patterns with others. Be creative with seating or invite people to different occasions at different times. If necessary, avoid friction altogether by taking yourself out of the social equation with your own holiday celebration.”
#3. Have an exit strategy
There may be some events you have interest in attending, but hesitate because you aren’t sure if the participation will be pleasant or unpleasant. Consider giving it a try, but have an exit strategy. For example, you could plan to go late, leave early, attend with a good friend or develop some reasons to leave a party such as “I need to let the dog out” or “I have an early appointment tomorrow” or “my babysitter needs to get home”.
Also, keep an eye out for events which are “drop in” as those allow you to pace your visit, remaining briefly or lingering for a longer period of time.
#4. Balance the social with solitude
The year-end period provides heightened opportunities for spending time with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. For that reason it’s vital to make time just for yourself. In her book, Live Lagom: Balanced Living The Swedish Way, Anna Brones observes: “Solitude allows us space to think, to reflect, to unwind, to avoid outer influences. In our ever-connected world, we are rarely alone and when we are it can be easy to do things that keep us social, like emailing and texting. . . .
(Solitude) doesn’t mean you need to walk into the wild woods for a week, but do something that allows you to tune out the rest of the world. Give yourself the space for solitude.”
#5. Practise self-care
Here are the two huge reasons why self-care is especially important this time of year. First, December, particularly, is filled with more than normal social obligations, which can lead to over-indulgence. Secondly, there are many additional year-end work and home responsibilities. The very routines that keep you healthy and happy can easily drift away, increasing your levels of anxiety, stress and sadness. “Take care of yourself—don’t overeat and over-drink,” advises psychiatrist Mark Sichel, author of Healing From Family Rifts. “Do your regular routines of exercise and whatever keeps you together during the year,” he adds. Be certain that you get enough sleep. Waking up tired or exhausted every day will only add to your fatigue, reduce your energy level and lower your resistance to getting sick.
Consider a year-round “mood booster”; giving of your time and talents to help others is a highly recommended technique for displacing holiday sadness. “Volunteering will help you feel connected to others and stave off loneliness and depression. It boosts your self-esteem and takes the focus off of your own problems,” says Harvard psychiatrist Michael Craig Miller. Research reveals that volunteering is associated with lower blood pressure, greater wellbeing and a longer life.
Some creative volunteering opportunities include providing childcare for a family member or friend, offering driving services to a person undergoing cancer treatment, running errands for a neighbour who is house-bound, assisting a low income person with property maintenance or offering translation services if you are fluent in another language.
Aware that he would be alone during the holidays, Daniel, a 24-year-old graduate student, volunteered to transport rescue animals. “I love animals and saw an opportunity to be a ‘rescue relay’ driver. That means I drive cats and dogs from high-kill shelters to no-kill shelters as well as to foster homes and adopters. I began one year in early December and continued to be a volunteer for over a year now. It’s immensely satisfying.”
#7. Limit access to social media
Research shows that the more social media you use, the more likely you are to suffer from anxiety or depression. One example is from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, which conducted a study of more than 1700 millennial adults. Their results showed that people using seven to 11 social media platforms had more than three times the risk of depression or anxiety than millennials who used just zero to two networks. While it’s not entirely clear why social media can produce life dissatisfaction, one likely reason is comparison. We see other’s posts of individuals at their best: the way they look, their exotic travels, who they’re dating, their happy times, and then we compare the reality of our lives to their ideal presentations. This naturally generates anxiety, sadness and depression. Maintain your mental health by limiting social media access or even taking a break from it totally.
#8. Reduce holiday travel stressors
The busiest travel times of the year are connected to the December–January holiday season. Even under normal conditions travel is stressful, but even more so when motorways are clogged with travellers eager to get to their destinations. The mixture of uncertain pandemic restrictions, unexpected delays and other issues like bushfires, flooding or storms can and do increase anxiety. That’s why it’s very important to anticipate and reduce holiday travel issues that may emerge.
Some ways to do that include:
- Ensuring you’re up with relevant Covid-19 requirements and restrictions at each point along your journey, including the return trip.
- Making a list of the most important items to be packed in your luggage so you don’t spend the night before losing sleep due to worry over forgetting something.
- Travelling during off-peak hours and days as much as possible.
- Anticipating and flowing with delays—planes are grounded and connections are missed
- Leaving much earlier than you think you need to; running behind schedule is a huge travel stressor.
#9. Engage in spiritual practices to restore your soul
Give yourself some quality quiet time for prayer, meditation or reading that inspires you and feeds your spirit. A prayer you can offer is one written by the French writer Francois Fenelon (1651–1715) who suffered from seasons of sadness: “My strength fails; I feel only weakness, irritation and depression. I am tempted to complain and to despair. What has become of the courage I was so proud of, and that gave me so much self-confidence? . . . Lord, destroy my pride; leave it no resource. How happy I shall be if You can teach me by these terrible trials that I am nothing, that I can do nothing, and that You are all!”
Maintaining spiritual strength will prevent you from becoming easily upset by events and frustrated by people, and will prevent your mind from magnifying small issues into major tensions. You can’t control and prevent unpleasant experiences from emerging, but you can control how you respond.
#10. Keep expectations balanced and realistic
Author and therapist Dr Barton Goldsmith offers this holiday reminder: “You won’t get everything you want, things will go wrong, and you won’t feel like Bing Crosby singing ‘White Christmas’. Remember that everything doesn’t have to be perfect and don’t worry about things that are out of your control.” Avoid striving for and expecting perfection. Instead cultivate acceptance.
Finally, honour and accept your feelings as they emerge during the holiday season. But don’t allow them to drive you deeply into hopelessness and despair. Manage your feelings rather than have them manage you. By doing that, you will keep the door of your life open for the joy that comes your way and the joy that you can bring to others.
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, bereavement educator and the author of several books. He lives in Oklahoma, USA.