Holly Daze — Handling the holiday blues

by Lore Peters, MA, ATR, LMHC

The winter air is cool and crisp. Holly, juniper and eucalyptus wreaths hang on doors, and lighted trees, candles and menorahs can be seen in windows. Kitchens are filled with the aroma of hot cider and cinnamon, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, angelic choral arrangements, and Frank Sinatra can be heard faintly in the background almost everywhere you go now. What a peaceful and serene feeling the season can bring. And then!! Suddenly, comes the shopping, wrapping, cooking, planning, visiting, traveling, etc… The list goes on and on and before you know it, the fun, frenzy and festivities have begun!

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, they’re all right around the corner! Whatever holiday you celebrate, tradition, warmth, giving and togetherness are themes for us all. There are also a few other themes that seem to creep in at this time of year, such as real and imagined obligations, expectations, guilt, food, finances, and a whirlwind of family and friends. Along with the gifts and merriment of the season, there can come the “holiday blues”.

What exactly are the “holiday blues” anyway? Well, as the name implies, they tend to be a seasonal phenomenon. For some of us, the longer darker hours of winter can result in feeling blue. Perhaps all the activities and the anticipation of the holiday are making you crazy or maybe you don’t have the same plans because of a recent loss or change in your life. For many people, the season is a stressful or unhappy time because of painful memories or family relations. Whatever your specific circumstances are, the factors that commonly contribute to the holiday blues tend to fall into four major categories: psychological, financial, physical and spiritual.

Psychologically, the blues may manifest because there are problems or emotions that have been repressed during the other months of the year that surface only during the holidays. The holidays often bring to light a more objective awareness or perspective that makes you take stock of your life. Where am I? What have or haven’t I accomplished? Who loves me? Where is my life going? If you don’t have what you want in your life, this may get magnified during the holiday season. You might also be facing your first holiday season without your spouse or a loved one and this can create feelings of deep loneliness and sadness. Seeing others rejoicing may also make things more difficult if you’re having a tough time. Make sure to seek out support for yourself and have people around or available to you if and when you need a listening ear.

Perhaps you are expecting perfect holiday celebrations, expensive gifts, and phone calls from long-lost friends, only to be disappointed when those expectations fall short. Loosen your expectations and realize that you can’t do everything and neither can anybody else. Trying to do too much and maintain a certain image is a common stress I hear from people at this time of year. Feel the spirit of the holidays and slow down a little. Remember that the festivities and gatherings are for you too. Be realistic, do what you can, and relax if things don’t go exactly as you would like.

Financially, the holidays may bring with them added expenses, and the increased out-flow of cash may cause anxiety. You may not have as much money to buy gifts or holiday clothing this year. Or you may find you’re spending more than you can afford. Stay within your budget. Keep in mind that the best and most meaningful gifts are not necessarily the most expensive ones. You might also consider giving gifts that can’t be bought, like your time, sharing of memories, or something handmade. These are often the most cherished gifts.

Physically, the long hours of shopping, attending social gatherings, baking, cooking, etc., can make you tense or fatigued. Too much recreational eating during the holidays can also cause weight gain, which can be frustrating. Try not to feel pressured to eat or drink more than you’re accustomed to just because it’s the holiday season. Before attending social events, decide how much and what types of food and drink you will consume. Get plenty of sleep. it’s important, as is exercising. Both will make you feel more refreshed and less fatigued. Remember that moderation is the key in all things.

Spiritually speaking, winter is the season of rest, restoration and reflection. We may feel a lot of energy with all the plans, cooking, traveling and the general hustle and bustle of the holiday, but remember to stop and take in the season’s quiet gifts for yourself. Sip some hot chocolate in front of a fire, gaze out a window at the falling snow, listen to music or sit down and call an old friend. Connect with others, then make time to connect with that wise, deep place within you. As Sarah Ban Breathnach says in her wonderful book Simple Abundance, “do things that care for your soul as well as the souls you love.”

If you’ve got a case of “holiday humbug”, it’s okay! Keep in mind that those perfect holiday gatherings portrayed in the movies and the media generally aren’t representative of most families. If things are not exactly what you’d like them to be, acknowledge your feelings and realize that it’s normal to experience your life-situation more acutely at this time of year. It’s okay to cry and feel your feelings. Remember… There are no wrong emotions. They are a part of life. Don’t ignore the very human need to release emotions and renew your healthy sense of self.

The “holiday blues”, although a temporary condition, can be a challenging time to get through. If you’re worried about having a more serious form of depression and the blues are lasting long beyond the holidays, you may require treatment by a trained mental health professional. Don’t be shy, ask for help.

Tips for handling “holiday blues”

  • If old traditions are lost, create new ones.
  • Try to accept family members as they are.
  • Help others; consider volunteering at a hospital or homeless shelter.
  • Try not to dwell on unhappy memories.
  • Set differences aside and leave old grievances alone for now.
  • Stay active and don’t abandon healthful habits.
  • Share responsibilities with other family members or friends.
  • Schedule in time for solitude and relaxation.
  • Rediscover gratitude, compassion, peace and joy.

Lore Peters, MA, ATR, LMHC, is a psychotherapist, expressive arts therapist and clinical consultant. She has been providing services to individuals and groups for 20 years and has a private practice in Arlington and Concord, MA.

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