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Happy couple embracing in front of a Christmas tree

Holiday blues – Surviving the holidays and mental health

You probably remember the ‘summertime blues’ from your school days. While most people are aware of the holiday blues, it doesn’t seem to be as normalized. Yet they seem to be far worse for many. There are reasons for this, and in many cases, they compound each other. But there is a way to counter this . . . but first, we need to identify the potential issues (Some solutions are further down in the post, I promise).

A perfect storm

You’re strolling through the mall and you see happy images of children playing, happy families under a Christmas tree, thankful families in front of a Menorah, happy couples strolling hand in hand through a beautiful park that is glistening with colorful lights, a light snow, and a group of kids huddled around a campfire making smores. You go to the grocery store and see juicy turkeys ready to be basted and presented to the family at that perfect family gathering where everybody shares their gratitude for each others’ company. Sounds about right . . . right? Nope. It’s a lovely movie, and pieces of these holiday images do work their way into many peoples’ families, but there is another side that gets ignored, and therefore sneaks up and bites people in the backside. Now before we go any further, let me clarify the point in this post: When we normalize reality, we are less likely to be thrown off by the curveballs that get tossed our way . . . I want to help you plan great holidays by acknowledging some of the curveballs that get in through our blind spot.

Media sets very high expectations

Turn on the radio or the TV, connect to the internet and you’ll see and hear advertisements with happy sounds, giggling children, and romantic proposals that go off without a hitch. Candy canes line the streets, beautiful lights are in storefronts with images of happy families enticing you to come on in and buy some joy for the family! Christmas carols start playing before Halloween on some stations, so our ramp up to a blissful season begins earlier and earlier. Oddly punctuated by images of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls for Halloween—ironically a typically rather happy time for many. Could be the sugar rush, too.

Fantasy bolsters the media expectations

I do not know many people who don’t want to have happy holidays, and they fantasize about how amazing their trips and visitors will be. They look forward to the wonderful times, and these internal hopes feed into the external messages from media outlets (The internet,┬áTV, radio, publications). So far so good. Things are feeling good!

We are surrounded by sights, sounds, and smells of joy

Part of the emotional blitz are the lights, decorations, smells and even the tactile experience of a nip in the air, and snuggling up under a warm blanket. And those Christmas carols that play in the stores and on the radio build our senses into wonderful expectations. They can be wonderful pick me ups! We just need to be sure to not let our blind spot dynamics intrude too much.

For many, less sunlight leads to seasonal depression

This is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D. — how ironic) and it has to do with a decrease in Vitamin D caused by less exposure to sunlight. Those in northern areas tend to be impacted a bit more since it gets dark much earlier than in the south. In those northern states, people can also be cooped up because of weather conditions (SAD and being cooped up is referred to as Cabin Fever–you’re stuck in a cabin).

Many people are spending time either away from home, or with visitors in theirs, or simply alone

So, out of their comfort zone, and around people that they do not see very often and are not used to their quirks. It can be tough when our routines are thrown off by loved ones. . . we want to be happy and show them a great time, even contribute to the perfect season of love and kindness.

By the way, it’s ok to set boundaries and expectations; it’s actually more effective since people are not having to guess at what is ok and not ok. When we just speak our truths, trusting that each other is being honest and loving, we are freer to have a good time.

Folks are spending money that they know really needs to go to bills and other necessities

The number one reason for relationship stress is money. And at the holidays we are spending money on travel, gifts, food, decorations, etc. right when our gas and electric bills are going up to keep us warm.

There is an easy way to counter this one: budget. Plan for the expenses, just be realistic and plan your spending accordingly. Avoid going into debt since the interest only adds to the bill. If you do use debt, pay it off as quickly as possible so it’s not following you for the whole year, only to be re-started during the next holiday season.

How the storm hits

Now that we’ve identified a few of the ingredients, let me explain one theory as to why the blues happen with such intensity.

In a nutshell, all of the sensory suggestions are setting the bar quite high: Everybody is happy!! Everybody has a healthy family! All homes smell like cookies and cinnamon! Children are thrilled with their toys, and the adults are free to enjoy each others’ company! Happy happy happy, joy joy joy!! So the expectation is set artificially high.

Now add to this the financial burden, the stress of being in somebody else’s home, or them in yours and the potential for S.A.D. Now we have an artificially high expectation paired with a very real experience of stress that can drag us down. But there is hope!! And it is a realistic hope!

How do we have a happy holiday season??

Now that we know what we are up against, we can counterbalance those pitfalls. I’ve already mentioned sticking to a budget to offset the financial pressure. The idea of using mindfulness to help you plan is the essence of how to have a great holiday. If you have visitors coming to your home, be sure that you let them know how things work best in your home. Most guests are happy to accommodate their hosts’ routines. And because you know that you’ll be around other folks that you are not usually around, be sure to plan for time alone with friends, with your spouse, etc. It charges you up so that you can get through the frenzy of food and fun!

Regarding S.A.D., if it is intense enough, your doctor may suggest a full-spectrum lamp that simulates the sun’s effects. They are surprisingly effective for many people. Be sure that you drink plenty of water, that you try to eat as healthy as you can, and EXERCISE!! Exercise is one of the best ways to offset stress, depression, and anxiety that frequently visit during the holidays.

Be sure that you know that it is ok to not leave the radio tuned to Christmas carols. It is also just fine to rent movies that are not related to the holidays. Comedies are usually a hit! For that matter, go see a live comedy show!

I have friends that go out to eat at least 2x/week during the holidays at restaurants that do not have lots of Christmas decorations. It just provides a break from the glitzy influence.

Be patient with your loved ones. Remember, they are susceptible to the above dynamics just like you. If there is some conflict, it’s ok, and it’s normal; very often, conflict is simply a way to blow off some steam before it gets out of hand, and people are able to move beyond it rather quickly. If apologies are needed, make them, then move on. If somebody apologizes to you, accept it and reassure them that all is forgiven, then get back to some fun times.

Be willing to schedule a visit with your counselor, or schedule a few more than usual. It’ll get you out of the house, and provide you with a safe place to vent. If you are traveling and your therapist is available for Skype or Telephonic sessions (I provide this), you can take advantage of the convenient method. Just be sure you have enough privacy. I do not suggest going for a drive and doing your session via blue booth while driving. It’s not safe. You may sit in a parking lot though and do this, but if things feel emotional during the session, collect yourself before driving.

Maintain some normal routines to keep you grounded. It may be watching Wheel of Fortune at 6:30, or it may be doing the laundry on Sunday at 2:00; just something that is familiar and helps you stay grounded.

There are many more things that can be done. On my Gate Healing PLLC Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus page, feel free to add some appropriate suggestions under the link to this post.