As we get older, the holidays tend to sneak up on us sooner each year.
Christmas cards start arriving in the mail along with invitations to holiday parties. Teens create gift wish-lists that hopefully match the family’s spending money set aside for the season.
Very quickly, the stretch of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day can start to feel pretty overwhelming.
Just as the season seems to sneak up on us, so, too, can the holiday blues. They come on as we transition from fall to winter, soon after the clocks get set back and darkness sets in earlier each day.
It’s colder outside, so our activity levels decrease because we’re cooped up in the house avoiding the snow and ice. Sweet treats and comfort foods are more accessible during the holidays, and we often spend long hours in cars and airports traveling to visit relatives.
“The holidays, aside from being a fun time, can also be a very stressful time because there are a lot of events and lot of family gatherings,” said Stephen Smith, director of the Rosecrance Berry Campus and Aspen Counseling & Consulting LLC. “And for some, that can be very good, and for others, that can be a source of stress more than something joyful.”
Smith said a big myth about the holiday blues is that they only affect people with chronic mental illness. The holiday blues actually affect a large segment of the population this time of year, so they really are a common condition, he said.
So the holiday blues are a common, normal experience. But how do you avoid them or make yourself feel better when the season doesn’t seem so joyful?
Stay as active as possible, Smith said. Join a gym or find a way to stay active indoors. Be aware of maintaining a healthy diet. Avoid indulging in too much alcohol, which is a depressant.
And don’t underestimate the importance of talking to someone about how you’re feeling.
“Talk therapy, even brief talk therapy during those periods where you know you’re dealing with significant stressors is good,” Smith said. “We all know with stress, we tend to bottle it up, so the more you can talk about it, the easier it is to process it and actually work through it and realize it doesn’t have to be this huge impediment to enjoying the season.”
Try to be as proactive about the holiday blues as possible, and don’t ignore them. Pay close attention to children and teens who also might be feeling stressed during the holiday season. Their behavior can change because they’re on vacation and they don’t have that structure of the typical school day.
“A lot of times, we try to look the other way, usually because we’re caught up in the hoopla of the season,” Smith said. “So you might notice things like agitation. Parents and kids who are normally calm, cool and collected are suddenly agitated at the drop of a hat. Social withdrawal is another issue, as you may also see them isolating a little bit more.
“Any real, major change from what has been normal behavior is something worth addressing, not ignoring or thinking it’s just going to go away. Because the more that problem is allowed to progress, the more difficult it is to get out of it.”
The holiday blues won’t necessarily require years of psychotherapy and medication treatment. People may just need to express how they’re feeling, get a third-party perspective and then move on with their lives, Smith said. Light box therapy is sometimes utilized to help elevate people’s moods because they’re exposed to less sunlight during the winter.
Holiday blues differ from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which tends to happen again and again, year after year. People often think SAD only occurs during the winter, but there can be a similar effect during the spring and summer for people, Smith said.
“SAD tends to be more chronic, while the holiday blues may be very much more tied to a specific event or this time of year,” Smith said. “You get a thousand things going on, and it’s hard to keep up with everything.”
If the holiday blues worsen or hang on past the actual holidays, reach out to a mental health professional for help. Rosecrance has mental health services available for adults, children and families through several locations in Rockford, Chicago and the suburbs, and Wisconsin.
Visit rosecrance.org to schedule a free consultation, or call 815-391-1000 or (866) 330-8729 for help.