Dealing with the holiday blues can be difficult since the season socially demands unwavering cheer.
For those who struggle with their mental health, the holiday season can be extra challenging and it is not rare to experience exacerbations of your condition.
My Experience with the Holiday Blues
Like clockwork, every year my anxiety goes through the roof. For some reason, I also tend to feel sadder around the holidays, for no identifiable reason.
When I think back to what could be causing it, I immediately think of less than ideal holidays that my family and I endured.
As a kid, my family life was unpredictable, tumultuous, and scary at times. It made sense for me to be sad around the holidays back then, but now as an adult, it made no sense to me.
Being happily married, no longer a child in poverty, and having an especially peaceful home, It's a bit frustrating to try and figure out why every holiday season makes me feel sad. I feel guilty for having so much, yet still, I feel sad.
Then came a much-awaited explanation.
After a few years of seeing my therapist, she noticed a pattern of increased symptoms of my depression and anxiety around the holidays. In addition, she also pointed out that I myself, could never really pin down a specific cause for it every single year.
In digging deeper she helped me to uncover a deep-set childhood trauma that occurred around the holidays and explained to me that often times when your mental health has a seasonal pattern, no matter what time of year it is, it may be related to certain traumas that are held in the body and the subconscious mind.
Working in Healthcare with the Holiday Blues
In addition to that pattern, we discovered that I had an unhealthy way of coping.
You see, my preferred way of coping with the holiday blues was to pick up all the extra shifts at the hospital, overwork, and keep moving in order not to feel or process the increased anxiety and depressed mood I was experiencing.
Some people numb with substances and addictions- I numb myself with work.
I was that single girl, who volunteered to work & be on call most holidays because I "didn't have family down here". Looking back it may have been a strange way of punishing myself for not having or being who I wanted.
Every holiday, I would look forward to the unit potlucks and bonding with my coworkers over having to work. I'd be fine at work then go home to be completely alone.
Everyone I knew my age was moving through life milestones- finding their life partners, creating homes with them.... & there I was, sitting in my dark bedroom, with the glow of my phone in my face, tearing up scrolling obsessively through social, feeling less than, perceiving a profound lack that nobody else seemed to have.
So the general feeling that I had cultivated throughout my life around the holidays was traumatic childhood events followed by self-inflicted overwork, isolation & loneliness. Lost as to why this was happening to me and why I deserved to feel such profound sadness when everyone around me was so happy.
More Sustainable Ways to Cope with the Holiday Blues
What I have learned over the years of therapy and in befriending my holiday blues every year, is that it is possible to find better ways to cope and it is possible to undo some of that negative programming.
Even if you have a different reason for experiencing increased sadness this time of year, I find that the holidays are extra stressful for pretty much everyone because the expectations are high and those that have less than ideal finances, family dynamics, time off, etc are constantly reminded of their perceived deficits in comparison to everyone else.
Also, family-centered holidays, in general, may also be especially difficult when loved ones are far away, have conflict, or have passed, as their presence may be more deeply felt around those times. Pet loss carries an equivalent emotional weight and grief and must also be considered.
Together with toxic positivity, that punishes any type of behavior deemed uncheerful. Everyone expects Will Ferrell in Elf -level cheer from you or else you're a Grinch or a Scrooge.
Add to that that any environment you previously sought refuge from sadness or anxiety is now *dressed up for the holidays*.
Few places around the holidays are able to hold space, compassion, or patience for the full range of emotions that humanity requires.
It can be really hard.
As brought forth by trial and error and working closely with a therapist, here are the things that help me immensely to cope this time of year.
Giving Myself a Break
The first thing my therapist communicated to me is that I had to cultivate compassion for myself for a lifetime of experiences that shaped my mood this time of year.
In other words, your emotional pain is valid, it has a purpose & that is to let us know that something inside us needs whatever the emotional equivalent of swaddling a baby is, instead of shaming and emotional beatings.
In many ways, all aspects of you, including the emotional pain you may feel around the holidays deserve to be acknowledged and supported throughout its evolution away from repression.
It has helped me immensely to know ahead of time that I will feel extra anxious and sad around the holidays. Now that I expect it to show up & I plan to take it extra easy on myself this time of year.
Now instead of pressing the gas pedal on my life like before to avoid processing feelings, now I slow down and press the break as often as I need to. This has liberated me.
I understand that although I may not fully understand the ins and outs of why these emotions visit me every year, I no longer try to repress, shame, shun, or run away from them.
I purposely take things off my plate in anticipation, because the holiday blues zap my energy.
Typically my productivity and efficiency go way down and instead of fighting it, I give myself enough space and time to move more intuitively.
Resting when my body wants to rest, taking more breaks, honoring my desire to be super cozy in all ways.
I still work and tackle tasks on my to-do, but it is a lot more streamlined and bare-bones. The attitude is: done is better than perfect.
Giving myself the compassion and support I have always wanted the world to give me around the holidays, has done wonders in helping me cope with holiday stress; each year the emotional charge becomes less and less.
Keeping My Cup Full
Since now I expect that I will be more tired than normal, I try my best to schedule my life accordingly. Optimizing myself prior to taking on anything that I know will deplete me is very helpful in avoiding depletion.
Here are some things that I immediately prioritize to try and help myself feel my best even with the holiday blues.
Prioritize Sleep with sleep hygiene and commitment to the same sleep schedule every day.
Nourish my body for energy and maximum well-being with the best food, content, books & social interactions that are good for my body and nervous system.
Maintain my Start-up and shut down rituals with my gratitude journal, to reinforce the habit of pouring into myself first and last thing every day.
Going on Walks to close stress cycles.
Keeping an eye out for healthcare hangovers & getting myself back to baseline before adding more stress.
Keeping my cup full also means being gentle with myself in terms of self-talk & also not beating myself up if I'm not perfect in maintaining the ideal holiday blues combat plan perfectly.
I find that it's really great to celebrate yourself for any approximation towards filling your own cup first instead of stacking more stress on yourself by attempting perfect execution.
Doing Way Less, but with more Focus
I mentioned before that around the holidays I heavily streamline my to-do list.
As a type-A, perfectionist it has taken me many years to not do things at the high level of intensity that I am used to, but it has really been invaluable in being a steward of my finite energy, focus, and time.
In addition to my tendency to overwork around the holidays, my perfectionism had me needing to pick the perfect natural tree, bake cookies, find the perfect holiday playlist & put on a festive outfit to even decorate our place. It would take most of the day & take the little energy I had to do all that.
If my house didn't smell and look like the inside of a beloved Christmas movie, I would feel bad about myself.
Looking back, I realize that was probably also part of overcompensating for my low mood.
In the last few years, I've removed more and more stuff from that list. This year it took my husband and me less than an hour to put up our fake tree, which is beautiful, fire retardant, and better for the environment anyways.
We were in our PJs and had plenty of energy left to go on a long walk with the dogs after.
Part of my journey towards doing fewer things with more focus and intention I owe in great part to my full focus planner. This little tool has helped me cultivate the habit of focusing tasks only on a vital few 3 things per day. It has changed everything. I am forced to pick only the 3 most important things to do each day, it has helped me reel in my propensity to be distracted too.
Streamlining tasks now may be harder than ever given all the extra choices we have, but there is also a lot of value in using digital tools to simplify tasks.
For instance, I find so much value in avoiding crowds & using pickup and delivery services to shop for essentials & holiday gifts. Now that previously frantic shopping experience has now been replaced with tapping my phone while drinking coffee our in the fresh air on my patio.
That's a nervous system upgrade in my book.
Ask for Help
Oooof this was a really hard one for me.
I am ashamed to say that the words "it is just faster if I do it", have come out of my mouth more times than I care to admit.
Inevitably this would lead me to take on too much --> decompensate and only attempt to ask for help while speaking unintelligibly through a messy ugly cry.
Now I try my best to stay ahead of it.
✔Therapy sessions scheduled ahead of time
✔Delegating when I need to, which If I'm honest I need to more often than not.
✔*trying* not to care when things aren't done my way.
You want to stuff the clean dishes into our cupboards, and not in the anal-retentive system I created for optimum space-saving- go ahead lol I just need them dishes out of the dishwasher.
The more I work on not letting the little stuff bother me & letting go of my constant need for perfection the more I am able to accept help & the better I feel.
To wrap up
Whether you know the reason your mental health sufferers more during the holidays or not, try these and see if you notice a difference.
Put these in your toolbox to try and make the holidays more peaceful and enjoyable for yourself. When you anticipate the holiday blues and have a solid plan to cope, It doesn't always have to be a massive struggle.
By putting these into practice, you will notice the emotional charge and symptoms of the holiday blues get less and less over time.
Share this with someone who would find this helpful.