By Jill Suttie
The winter holidays can be a very special time. Families gather, people give thanks or exchange presents, special meals are prepared, the streets and trees are decorated in lights. It can feel like a magical time, a time of good cheer.
But, for some of us, this time of year is not a happy occasion—and can even be fraught or depressing. Family tensions or overly high expectations can make us vulnerable to feeling more down than elated. If we’ve suffered the loss of a loved one, we may feel that person’s absence more keenly. Or, we may just feel like we can’t afford to make the holidays bright for our families.
Elaine Rodino, a licensed therapist and past president of the Central Pennsylvania Psychological Association, says people can feel blue for many reasons. But, for adults, memories of negative childhood experiences can shape their feelings around the holidays. For example, if they grew up with an alcoholic parent who often drank too much at Christmas dinner and became angry and abusive, they may associate this time of year with pain or sorrow.
“These experiences have become imprinted memories, so they’re really difficult to shake,” says Rodino.
Alternatively, memories of past childhood holidays may be Hallmark card perfect, she says. If you had the best decorated house on the street or a mom who baked dozens of cookies and gave them to all the neighbors, that can create another type of expectation.
“How do you follow up on that?” asks Rodino. “It can feel like a lot of pressure to believe you must maintain that level of celebration.”
Other things can cloud the holidays, too. Some people have lost loved ones or gone through a divorce. In that case, this year’s holidays may be the first time they’re celebrating without family members or beloved friends. And, if everyone around you seems to be filled with holiday cheer, it may amplify your own feelings of sorrow.
The good news is that these low moods often pass once the holiday are over, says Rodino, and they don’t necessarily require psychological treatment. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should just buck up and ignore our feelings. You can still do things to help yourself manage the blues—as long as they are not too overwhelming.
Rodino suggests that people first self-reflect on their reasons for feeling down, to see what’s at the heart of it. If you’re dreading the holidays because of family tensions or the pressure to go all out on celebrating, it’s time to make different choices–maybe forgoing elaborate house decorations or your uncle’s annual dinner. You might even skip the holidays altogether and escape to a tropical island (if you can afford it, that is).
“I always tell people that they can make new traditions and be creative—or do nothing at all,” says Rodino. “There are no Christmas police coming around to check up on you, so you’re free to celebrate it however you’d like.”
As this can be a stressful time of year even for the hardiest among us, people should make sure to take good care of themselves, she adds. “Take breaks from whatever you’re doing. Take a long walk, read a book, do something that is just relaxing.”
Sometimes it’s not us, though, but others in our lives who are sad this time of year. If our children, friends, or partners seem very blue, we should check in with them to see what’s going on, says Rodino. It helps to be open to listening to our loved ones share their sorrows or stressors, too, so that they don’t have to hold that burden alone.
“You never make anyone feel worse by asking them how they’re feeling or noticing that they don’t seem happy and asking if they’d like to talk about it,” she says.
What helps shift the holiday blues
If you find yourself feeling down at the holidays, there are other ways to shift a low mood to a bit happier one. Psychotherapists who treat people with mood disorders often recommend these tips to patients to help them lift their depression:
1) Add small, pleasant activities to your life. Making time every day to do something that brings you a little joy—whether that’s grabbing coffee at the local café, talking to a friend, quilting, or watching a sunset—can help balance the difficulties of the holidays with more positive experiences.
2) Move your body—even if it’s just a little. Exercise of any kind—walking, biking, weight-lifting, dancing— is proven to be mood-boosting and is important for overall health, too.
3) Try meditating or practicing self-compassion. Making yourself more aware of your feelings and thoughts and learning to accept them (rather than just pushing them away) can help some people manage their moods. And, in the midst of our suffering it can be good to remember that others feel this way, too, and to offer yourself kindness.
4) Connect with other people. Sometimes, we just need to stop avoiding social interactions and start connecting with people—friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, even strangers. Try calling an old friend, asking a colleague to coffee, waving at your neighbor, or greeting your local grocer or mail carrier. These small interactions can make you happier.
5) Give thanks for small blessings. Try staring a gratitude journal, where you write down a few small things you feel grateful for every day. Don’t try to be grateful for things you’re not happy about, though—you don’t have to paint a smiley face on difficult things. But, look for the small, good things in your life—like a delicious cup of coffee, your pet’s soft fur, a beautiful winter sky, or your child’s goofy grin—and say thanks to yourself for those small blessings.
Rodino also recommends taking the focus off of yourself and helping others during the holidays—perhaps volunteering to deliver meals to the hungry, sing for people in a nursing home, or visit lonely neighbors.
“Helping other people is really helpful to you,” she says. “It helps lift your mood to feel like you’re doing something purposeful, something that makes others feel happy.
Of course, sometimes you don’t feel able to do even these small things to lift them. If your blues are more serious and you’re experience troubling, persistent symptoms—not sleeping, losing your appetite, lasting sadness every day, or not being able to motivate yourself to do anything—these may be a sign of major depression requiring attention. Consulting with your doctor or a psychotherapist would be a good step to take to find out if you need psychological treatment or medication.
Otherwise, if you’re just feeling a bit blue this holiday season, take heart. There are ways to move the needle—you just need to figure out what works best for you. Your mood can shift with a little effort, making the holiday season brighter for you and those around you.
About the Author
Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is a free-lance journalist and a staff writer and contributing editor for Greater Good, an award-winning online magazine published by the University of California’s Greater Good Science Center. A psychologist by training, her articles cover scientific research aimed at uncovering the keys to individual wellbeing and a more compassionate society. She also records music and has two CD’s of original songs that can be heard and purchased on her personal website: jillsuttie.com.