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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

“It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on.”

– Joni Mitchell


Cutting down evergreen tree, showing how holiday stress can hurt people with anxiety or depressionSeth* used to love the holidays. As a kid, he counted down the days to Christmas.  He has a birthday that falls around Thanksgiving, so he loved getting presents at the start of the holiday season. His love of the holidays continued into adulthood, when he looked forward to going home to spend time with his family.

That all changed when his mom passed away unexpectedly two days before Christmas.

“That was a blow I’ve never recovered from,” said Seth. “Now, I look at the holidays as something I have to get through – not something I look forward to. It’s been a decade since my mom passed, but I still feel this unrelenting sadness come over me in mid-November and last until the New Year.”

Grief is not the only reason the holidays are difficult.  People can experience stress trying to get everything done, feeling the need to be as “perfect” as the holiday cards you receive, dealing with family members, hoping your gifts will be well received, cooking for a large group…the list goes on and on.

And these holiday pressures can be made significantly worse by anxiety or depression.

“A lot of people feel like they’re supposed to be happy during the holidays. Everyone around them is telling them they’re supposed to be happy, and yet inside they don’t,” Dr. Steve Koh, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California San Diego and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s scientific program committee, told CBS News. “So, there’s this friction between what’s happening inside versus what everybody else is telling you to feel and that can increase depressive symptoms and anxiety.”

Managing Holiday Stress

Seth says several things have helped him manage the holidays better. First and foremost, fate played a big role in that first year following his mom’s death: He got engaged to his long-time girlfriend.

“Instead of spending the holidays doing the exact same things minus my mom, I started new holiday traditions with my fiancé,” said Seth. “We spent the first Christmas Eve with her brother’s family and seeing the joy on their faces as they opened presents helped me deal with my grief over losing my mom and the first Christmas without her.”

Seth found that acknowledging his grief also helped. A visit to his mother’s gravesite on the anniversary of her passing allowed him to remember and honor his mother before the start of holiday festivities.

“As the years have gone by, my wife – and now our two daughters – visit the grave site with me,” said Seth. “I share memories of my mom with my family and we talk about how much she would have loved my girls.”

The Mayo Clinic recommends alleviating holiday stress by starting new traditions and acknowledging grief.  Additionally, the Clinic suggests:

  1. Ask for help. If you feel lonely or need someone to talk to, call or visit a friend or loved one. You could also go to a social event or find a support group.
  2. Maintain realistic expectations. Not all holidays are picture-perfect, even if that’s what you see from your friends and family’s social media posts and holiday cards. Try not to compare what you see on the outside to what you feel on the inside.
  3. Mend fences. One of the hardest things about the holidays is trying to get along with family members who you may have argued with in the past. According to the Mayo Clinic: “Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion.”
  4. Make a budget and stick to it. Financial stress and the holidays seem to go hand-in-hand. While it may be tempting to overspend on presents, some of the best gifts can be spending time with loved ones or giving them the gift of your time by helping them out – making them a meal, babysitting their little ones, or doing an activity together.
  5. Healthy habits. Overindulging in food and drink can be a pitfall that’s especially troublesome for people with depression and anxiety. Drink alcohol in moderation (if at all), exercise, take your medications as prescribed, and try to stick to your diet. Your psyche will appreciate it.
  6. Just say no. You know your limits better than anyone. If it gets to be too much, try to decline events and get togethers that aren’t “mandatory.” Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s good to take a breath and relax.

While the holidays won’t ever be the same, Seth says he now finds ways to find joy in them, something he wasn’t able to do before.

“I’m no longer filled with an overwhelming sense of dread when the holidays come,” said Seth. “I’m better able to manage them by ensuring I’m in a good mental state and having a clear plan for managing holiday stress.”

* Seth asked not to use his given name.

Originally posted on December 14, 2017

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