“It’s in full swing already,” said Licensed Professional Counselor Veronica Harrison of Community Counseling Services. The “it” is stress that can worm its way into what we’re told should be the “hap-happiest season of all.” For some, however, is isn’t. The holiday blues — feelings of sadness, stress and irritability that can occur from about November through January — are a real phenomenon. Harrison and Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle Director of Pastoral Care Steve Brown offer observations and suggestions for coping.
“Maybe you’ve lost connections with family members, maybe there are issues from your past, maybe you’ve lost a loved one, maybe you have an overwhelming sense of needing to be able to do what everybody wants you to do, or you don’t have the funds to do what you think you need to do in the holidays,” Harrison said. These triggers and others can weigh heavily on holiday spirit. And they can happen to anyone.
The commercial world seems to begin its holiday push earlier each year, and with it seasonal anxiety kicks in earlier, noted Harrison, who serves as Community Counseling Services’ M-CeRT (Mobile Crisis Emergency Response Team) coordinator.
“When holiday (merchandise) starts showing up in retail earlier and on TV earlier, it kicks it off and creates more angst,” she said. Harrison went on to recount an incident recently shared by someone who saw Christmas items on a store’s top shelving while shopping for back-to-school supplies.
“They became anxious because they were struggling to do back-to school and thinking, ‘I can barely do this; how can I do Christmas?’ As we keep pushing it up, it really does cause so much anxiety.”
“How to Lose the Holiday Blues” was the topic of Steve Brown’s community outreach talk Tuesday at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Columbus.
Usually holiday blues are temporary and seasonal, Brown told his audience. They may be interspersed with spells of peace or happiness. This distinguishes them from a more severe depression that is chronic and is best discussed with a medical professional.
The American Psychological Association reports that even as a majority of people say they have feelings of happiness, love and high spirits during the holiday season, they also feel fatigue, stress, irritability, bloating and sadness, Brown shared. Thirty-eight percent said stress levels increased during the holidays, with the top stressors being lack of time and money, commercialism, pressures of gift giving and family gatherings.
Unrealistic expectations are a common trigger. Too often, people “buy into” societal yardsticks that imply, for instance, that you must buy the gifts loved ones have asked for, whether you can afford them or not — that you should always say “yes” when asked to help others or with a project — that you must visit both sets of in-laws on Christmas Day, even when it wears everyone out — or that you must show up at every family gathering, every party, even if you’re meeting yourself coming and going.
“When we’re buying into these, it can make our lives miserable,” Brown said. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this a rational expectation?'”
Other common triggers Brown shared include:
“There’s also the pressure to be part of every activity,” said Harrison. “It can be overwhelming. Sometimes you have to say, ‘Sorry, can’t, too much.’ If you lack the ability to do that, to take care of your own personal needs, it can be just debilitating. Decide which events are important; you can’t be a part of everything.”
Self-care can boost our ability to cope with seasonal blues, whatever their cause.
“Get enough sleep, exercise, eat well,” Brown advised, adding that it helps to get a dose of sunshine on these short winter days, or at least some fresh air when weather is overcast.
Harrison said, “It’s a No. 1 thing, taking care of yourself. Put yourself first, even if you have kids. Eat as healthy as you can, because that’s one of the issues around the holidays. Watch the intake of alcohol; that creates greater depression oftentimes.”
If an overloaded calendar generates undue stress, consider taking a trip, if it’s in the budget, suggested Harrison. “Sometimes it’s easier to just say, ‘We’re not going to be here.'”
For those who experience feelings of isolation and loneliness around Thanksgiving and Christmastime, “There is nothing wrong with buddying up with someone else who is going to be alone,” the counselor said. Check the paper, community calendars and with various churches for activities to get involved in.
“Create friendship traditions,” Harrison suggested. “We have this thing about the holidays being all about family, but family is what you make it, and sometimes it’s not feasible for everybody to be together.”
For those grieving a loss, beginning a new tradition — even as simple as lighting a candle at the table in a loved one’s memory — may be comforting.
Schedule time for solitude, Brown suggested. Keeping a daily gratitude journal can reduce stress and improve well-being.
“Holiday blues is something all of us may go through, some more than others,” he continued. “When you have these feelings, it’s important to acknowledge them, recognize them and say, what am I going to do about it?”
In times of seasonal pressure, sadness or anxiety, reaching out to others may be one of the most powerful coping practices of all — whether you are someone needing support, or someone able to provide it.
“One of the greatest gifts,” Brown said, “is to listen.”
Editor’s note: Community Counseling Services’ crisis helpline is available 24 hours a day, 888-943-3022.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.