It's officially the holiday season! That means it's time to decorate the Christmas tree, light the Chanukah candles, bake your favorite cookies and spend time with your family.
For most people, the holidays are a ton of fun—but they're also stressful. Shopping for gifts, cooking large meals and hosting family members is supposed to make you joyful, but usually, it just adds a ton of pressure to an already stressful time.
No matter what's going on in your life, the holidays feel like a time when you have to keep up appearances. You have to act like everything in your life is wonderful, even if it's not. This can lead to what many refer to as the "holiday blues."
The medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Dr. Ken Duckworth, explains, "I think a lot of people would say that the holidays are the worst time of the year. Many feel miserable, and that's not only for people with clinical depression."
During the holidays, many people experience loneliness, anxiety, sadness, fatigue and irritability. These negative feelings are exacerbated by the stressors brought on by the holidays.
Some of the primary reasons people feel blue around the holidays include financial stress, unrealistic expectations, high social demands, over-commercialization, and the inability to be with one's friends and family, explains WebMD.
One of the most complex aspects of enjoying the holidays is—you guessed it—family. "There's this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free," says Dr. Duckworth. "That's not the case. Family relationships are complicated."
People often take on too much during the holidays, and in an effort to "enjoy" the season, they forget to take care of themselves. It's not unusual for people to eat and drink too much, not sleep enough and exercise less during the holidays. This can lead to health issues like headaches, insomnia, tension and fatigue.
Finally, believing you should feel "happy" during the holidays is unrealistic. With all these extra stressors (and the fact that the entire holiday season lasts 4-6 weeks), it's just not realistic to think you can be happy all the time. This expectation of happiness can actually make you even more unhappy. It's a vicious cycle, and one many people experience every single year.
How to Cope With the Holiday Blues
There's no one answer for how to deal with the holiday blues, but one of the best things you can do is get enough sleep. "People tend to lose sleep during the holidays and end up shortchanging themselves," explains the University of Rochester Medical Center. "Lack of sleep can cause cloudy thinking and irritability. It can also hamper your ability to deal with everyday stress."
Here are some other tips for managing holiday depression and stress:
- Set a realistic budget (and actually stick to it)
- Make reasonable expectations for yourself
- Don't take on more than you can handle
- Try to avoid family conflict
- Don't commit to too many events
- Find fun, free holiday activities to enjoy with your friends/family
- Don't compare this holiday season to the "good old days"
- Don't compare your holiday activities to those of your friends
- Make time to volunteer (especially if you're feeling lonely)
- Limit your (unhealthy) food and alcohol consumption
- Make sure to exercise
- Try to get enough sunlight and fresh air
Lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help. Ask your family to split hosting duties with you, reach out to friends to see if they want to go shopping together, or contact a counselor/therapist for more serious support.
The holiday blues are common, but if you feel that your depression is more serious, contact your healthcare provider or look online to find a therapist. If you are feeling suicidal, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.