Why is it that two seemingly diametrically opposed words can form a such a stirring phrase? After all, this is supposed to be a time of year that’s filled with celebrations, coming together with friends and family, and all about joy.
In reality, however, the holidays – Christmas, New Year’s, and the other occasions falling on the calendar this time of year can, for a significant portion of the population, be a time of stress and anxiety, loneliness and even depression. Why is that? What causes these negative feelings, and what can we do to combat it?
Holidays Bring out the Best in People – and the Worst
Christmastime is the favourite season for many folks. And with good reason. The festive nature brings out the best in a lot of people. It’s the time of year when, statistically and anecdotally, we’re the most generous, giving gifts to friends, family, colleagues et al – and donating our time and money to help those less fortunate. The act of giving is known to make us feel better. And of course, receiving gifts is always nice. So, given all of this, why do some folks get the holiday blues?
There are many theories and potential answers to this question. Let’s take a look at a few.
Shorter Days, Less Daylight/Sunlight
For some people, the issue may be ‘correlation without causation.’ In other words, they associate negative feelings with the holidays (Christmas, New Year’s, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, even US Thanksgiving) because they seem to feel down during this time of year. But are the holidays the actual cause? It’s possible – likely, even – that a significant segment of the holiday blues sufferers have already started their annual depression period well before any holidays have taken place. Since the onset of fall, we experience less and less daylight combined with cooler temperatures and less sunshine. The shorter days are felt particularly abruptly when the time changes in late October or early November. This leads into a progression of symptoms that sink in and worsen as the fall and winter go on. Some people from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). For more on this phenomenon, see our previous article on “Combating Time Change and Less Daylight in the Winter.”
Negative Associations and Uncomfortable Memories
Okay, well that’s a start, but daylight doesn’t explain everyone who suffers from holiday stress or depression – not even the majority. A bigger one, by a hefty margin (but a bit less ‘scientific’ or tangible) is that holidays can trigger memories or associations that bring out negative feelings. Not everyone grew up in a house where everyone gathered around the tree, sang carols, exchanged gifts, and had a wholly (and holy) positive experience. Children of alcoholics or divorced parents, for example, might have seen more of the extremes at the holidays – seemingly happy one minute, then fighting and chaos the next. The natural defense mechanism for such times is to moderate somehow, to put up barriers and create shells and walls. This is a stressful response, though, and when someone has to go through this ritual every year at the same time, the association with that time is bound to be negative. Another trigger is the death of a loved one at the holidays sometime in the past – or mourning the recent passing of a loved one, and experiencing heightened level of grief at this, the first holiday season without that person. In either case, this is a near-guarantee of a recipe for holiday depression. We’ll talk later about what to do and what not to do, but know that if you or someone you know suffers for these reasons, it’s a very common phenomenon.
For other people, the stressors and triggers might be more subtle, hidden deeper beneath the surface. Maybe you look around and see people in relationships or with a family enjoying the holiday time together, and you begin to lament your single life (it’s okay to be jealous, better to acknowledge it). Perhaps that ‘Scrooge’ you know has a job where year-end crunch time causes added stress, or they’re doing everything they can to make ends meet. That brings up financial burdens, felt more acutely at a time when societal custom dictates that we’re to give gifts to people. What if we can’t afford something nice for our kids – or anything at all??! Another group of people are introverts, for whom all the parties and activity are frankly way too much. They need space and quiet, after all, and this time of year can be the opposite of that!
In recent years, we’ve even taken to arguing as a society over what to call the holidays. Some people continue to say “Merry Christmas” or “Christmas Party,” etc., while other people call for the more inclusive term “holidays.” Debates and virtual fights have broken out on social media about this, with shouting, ‘unfriending’ and ‘blocking’ invariably being the result. Why? Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas or other holidays to stay festive and welcoming? Why would we take something positive and turn it into a negative?
What are some of the Symptoms of Holiday Depression, Stress & Anxiety?
If you or someone you know is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it may be the result of holiday stress, anxiety or depression.
- Easily angered
- Generally down or mopey
- Experiencing mood swings
- Upset for no apparent reason
- Headaches, back problems and/or other pains
- Excessive eating or drinking
- Trouble concentrating or focusing at school / work
- Decreased activity, lack of desire to participate in social activities
Having said that, again we must acknowledge the correlation/causation factor. That a person demonstrates these symptoms doesn’t in and of itself mean that the holidays are the cause. If you or they seem to be fine at other times of the year and fall into a regular pattern of experiencing some of these symptoms every year at the same time, there could indeed be a link.
So… What Are We to Do???
Knowing what we now know, we can take steps to rectify the situation.
If Someone You Know Appears to Have the Holiday Blues
If you have a friend, relative or colleague who demonstrates some of the aforementioned symptoms, and you’ve noticed a pattern that lines up these feelings with the holiday period, should you talk to them about it? That’s a “gut call” that only you can make. But many people just need someone to talk to, a shoulder to lean or cry on perhaps. The key here is to be empathetic. Don’t try to diagnose the problem and then swoop in with a “fix” or “solution” that you want them to follow. Despite the best intentions, that might seem confrontational or off-putting to the other person. Instead, start slowly, ask how they’re doing, and then… LISTEN. Listening is the most important and helpful thing you can do. Perhaps you were right, or maybe the cause is something else. In either case, you don’t want to seem too intrusive. Listen empathetically and actively, making mental notes about what the other person is saying. Then ask follow-up questions. If they start to recall memories or talk about personal matters that cause them to feel this way, remember: you asked, you initiated the discussion, so your role now is to listen and not to judge them or make them feel like they’re sharing too much (even if it gets a little… uncomfortable).
If You Suffer at This Time of Year
You don’t have to suffer alone. The fact is, many people experience similar feelings. The important thing is to recognize what’s causing these feelings, then identifying tools and strategies to get you through the tough times and out the other side.
- Know your triggers – find out what or who is the source of your negative associations with Christmas or other holidays
- Plan ahead – the holidays fall at or around the same time every year, so getting out ahead of it and making accommodations in advance will help you experience a better holiday period when those days/weeks on the calendar finally arrive
- Recognize what is within your control and what isn’t – it’s the old ‘Serenity Prayer,’ accepting what you can’t change and working on the rest of it
- Accept your limitations and draw boundaries – the more you and others around you know about what you can and can’t (and will and will not) tolerate, the better you’ll ultimately feel
- Continue to practice healthy habits – try not to give in to overeating or other excessive consumption that the holidays are notorious for… and make it a point to exercise and take time for yourself
The holidays don’t have to be a stressful or sad time of year. With planning and effort, we can avoid the negative feelings, and survive (and maybe even thrive). Sometimes, though, it all seems a bit much to handle on our own. Talking with a trained professional could be the right step for you or that person in your life who needs some extra tools. One of our experienced counsellors would be glad to set up a session and get started on a program with you. Get in touch with us today to start the process.