It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? That’s how the old Andy Williams classic goes, anyway, but for some folks, it just doesn’t ring true. The holidays can be difficult, even painful, for a number of reasons: financial stress, family strife, divorce, illness, social isolation or the loss of a loved one.
Dr. Deborah Serani, Psy.D., a New York–based clinical psychologist and author, actually makes a distinction between the holiday blues and holiday depression: “The holiday blues comes from the stress that begins right after Halloween and then fades away come the turn of the year,” she says. “It’s for a section of the population that seasonally struggles with some of the social and commercial demands that this time of year places on us. With holiday depression, once January 1 comes, the sadness still is there.”
But for those feeling down around the holidays—whether they suffer from holiday blues or full-on depression—their issues are similar. While it seems as through everyone around them is happy, happy, happy, their feelings of grief or sadness won’t disappear, and they struggle to adopt the same cheery disposition of others.
“Any sort of family or relationship issues don’t go away just because it’s the holidays,” says Eve Sturges, M.A., a life coach, marriage and family therapist intern, and writer in Los Angeles. “Anything that’s a high-stress variable can make the holidays feel extra hard because the whole commercial society is telling you that everything should be so happy and lovely and wonderful.”
If that sounds like your situation, here are some ways to cope:
1. Create new rituals
Feelings of loss or sadness can become amplified during the holidays. Serani says that, often, during the first holiday after a divorce or death, people still feel numb and have a support network rallying around them. But during the following year, or even several years afterward, that numbness subsides, friends and family may go back to their “normal” routines and the pain can become even more pronounced.
If honoring old traditions and family customs is too painful, consider making new ones. “You have to find a new way to celebrate what’s valuable to you now,” Serani says. “And by doing that, you can reclaim and take control over the loss and the helplessness. Also, allow yourself to be nostalgic. Don’t hide from those painful feelings or those memories. They’re to be treasured.”
2. Redefine “perfect” and manage your expectations
Serani says that unrealistic expectations are the biggest source of the holiday blues for parents.
“This tends to be a time when people want the best: ‘I want the most beautiful table setting; I want to find the perfect gifts,’” says Serani. “Do a litmus test and say, ‘What have these other holiday times been like? Am I really reaching for something that’s unattainable, or is it realistic?’ If it’s not realistic, you really need to lower your expectations. Good enough really is good enough.”
Remember this when you check on social media, too. Serani says that people tend to share only the “highlight reel” on Instagram and Facebook, showing just a tiny, very clean and carefully curated corner of their actual life. (Check out some #pinterestfails for a dose of comic reality!)
“People rarely post about the harder times they’re having during the holidays,” says Sturges. “You’re more likely to see pictures of all the fun stuff people are doing. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who can’t get great support by expressing themselves or asking for help on social media.”
If social media makes you feel bad or less connected during the holidays, give yourself the gift of unplugging for a little while.
3. Plan your errands, shopping and other holiday activity
Movement is good, but the quality of your movement matters, too, says Serani. Feeling as if you’re just pinballing from one thing to the next can leave you feeling stressed, depleted and down.
“When you’re rushing around trying to get things done, yes, you’re moving and being active, but you’re probably activating stress hormones,” Serani says. “I always tell people that if you’re going to have to chart the waters of the holiday time, try to map it as best you can, because it can easily turn into a burn-out time for many, many people.”
Plan your days and structure your errands to maximize your time. If there are ways to add more time into your day, say, with online gift- or grocery-shopping, do it. And learn when too much is too much. Avoid overscheduling yourself or your family, and learn how to say no graciously, both Serani and Sturges say.
4. Put your “oxygen mask” on first
Even though the holiday season is supposed to be about giving to others, we can’t neglect our own needs in the process. It’s hard during such a busy time, but we need to make self-care a priority. Serani calls this “putting the ‘you’ in yuletide.”
“If you can take care of yourself during the holidays, you’ll significantly reduce the holiday blues and burn-out that many people experience—especially the parents who are doing all of the shopping and caretaking and decorating,” Serani says. “It’s so important for parents to make sure they’re sleeping well and eating well. Park a little further from the store and walk. Climb the escalator. Those little bursts of energy will reduce some of the stress you’re feeling.”
This also goes hand-in-hand with managing our expectations of what we can do during the holidays. “It’s financially and physically exhausting if you’re trying to build the gingerbread house, and you’re trying to go to the Christmas movie, and you’re trying to see the decorated neighborhood, and you’re going to the Christmas play and you’re seeing Santa Claus,” says Sturges. “Give yourself permission to take it easy. Decide for yourself what you can manage, and know that children don’t need to be entertained and stimulated at every turn. Being tired can be a real trigger for depression and anxiety.”
Studies have found that volunteering and helping others reduces depression and increases our sense of wellbeing. It also helps us feel more socially connected to others and less isolated. Thus, volunteering in your community may be a perfect antidote to the holiday blues. And by involving the whole family, we can model behavior for our children and teach them important, hands-on lessons about giving and gratitude.
“Volunteering is a great way to lift your own spirits,” Sturges says. “It’s so great for families because it takes the focus off the commercialism of the holidays. Kids are never too young to have broader world views.”
6. Ask for help
Lastly, if the feelings of sadness or pain are so intense that they interfere with your normal life, consider talking to a therapist, says Serani.
“This is a stressful time for many people,” she says, “but if you’re not able to get to work or take care of your home or your children—if things are really starting to suffer as a result of you pouring yourself into getting this holiday stuff done—that might mean that the intensity of these experiences is beyond what anyone could probably take care of on their own.”