Stress, anxiety and depression – it must be the holiday season again!
The song says the holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year.” But for many, it’s the most woeful time. The holidays sees a spike in breakups, overindulgence in alcohol, financial pressure, overall stress, and even mortality rates.
Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink, led a mental health support group for ten years and noticed that each year, his group’s stress level started to rise in mid November as they contemplated all the implications of the holidays. Graeme brainstormed solutions with the groups and kept track of what worked best. He highlights eight factors that bring us down during the holidays and offers advice on how to deal with each:
We force ourselves to spend time with nasty people.Your judgemental father-in-law. Your constantly one-upping cousin. Your critical fr-enemy. Your inappropriate co-worker. Every holiday season, we voluntarily spend time with people like this in the name of fellowship, tradition, family, and the so-called “holiday spirit.”
Every year, we tell ourselves that this year will be different, but the truth is, if someone causes you anger or anxiety during the other 11 months of the year, it’s unlikely that things will be any different at a family holiday lunch or office party. Go into the situation with realistic expectations and remember that your well-being (not being polite!) is your first priority. If you feel your agitation rising, say, ‘Excuse me,’ and walk away. Then talk to someone else. Help in the kitchen. Play with the dog.
The holidays remind us of loss. No matter what you’ve lost—your health, a loved one, a job, or something else—the holidays tend to highlight what’s missing in your life, As much as possible, enlist the support of your friends and family. They’ll provide a listening ear, they may help run social interference, and they’ll understand if you just don’t feel up to attending another party.
We neglect our well-being. We tell ourselves we’ll get back on the workout wagon, cut out the junk food, and catch up on our sleep after the new year. My best advice is to plan ahead. If you don’t, that yoga class, healthy meal, or eight hours of sleep won’t happen. Make a special effort to fit physical activity into your schedule. Research shows that a 20-minute brisk walk, or the equivalent, significantly improves mood for up to 12 hours, and exercise also improves the quality of your sleep.”
We compare ourselves to everyone else. At the holidays, we’re especially prone to dwell on what others have accomplished and we haven’t. Because people brag about their accomplishments on Facebook and LinkedIn, it may help to go on a social media diet. Perhaps talk with a fan of yours. S/he might point out all the things you have to be proud of in your life. A focus on gratitude can be a game changer.
Unhealthy triggers are all around us. Overindulgence contributes to poor health, self-recrimination, bad moods, and worse decisions. (Be honest—you’d never have had last year’s awful argument if you hadn’t been drinking…and you dread stepping on the scale after January 1st.)
Mindfulness is key. Know your triggers and have a plan to manage or avoid those things. For instance, maybe eat a healthy meal before heading to your friend’s cocktail party, wear pants with an unforgiving waistband, or ask your spouse to cut you off after one or two drinks—whatever works for you. Just don’t show up at eating-and-drinking events without a plan, because your good intentions won’t last long in the face of temptation.
It’s cold and dark outside. Sure, you grumbled along with the rest of the country when it started to get dark before 6:00 p.m. and temperatures began to plummet…but you probably didn’t give the season change much more thought. But those factors can have a very real impact on your holiday mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects millions of Americans. And everyone benefits from being outdoors and getting sunlight, which boosts your serotonin levels.
Spending. If you’re overspending on gifts, parties, food, decorations, etc., you won’t feel very festive. Instead, you’ll be brooding over your dwindling account balance and worrying about all of the bills you’ll receive once the celebrations are over. You may even begin to resent others for “forcing” you to buy them presents or attend costly events.
It can’t be said enough: Setting (and sticking to) a holiday budget can make this time of year so much more enjoyable. Figure out how much you can comfortably spend, identify priorities, and record each expenditure. Also, remember that money and value aren’t necessarily synonymous. You might consider having a potluck with friends instead of exchanging gifts, or writing a heartfelt note of appreciation to family members.
The holidays can exacerbate depression or anxiety. If you’re suffering from clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, you’re struggling with a lot more than “just” the holiday blues. Typical holiday stressors can seem overwhelming, and the knowledge that you’re expected to be carefree and happy can make you feel even worse.
As someone who has struggled with severe depression, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you prioritize your well-being above others’ expectations. With their social expectations and reminders of loss, the holidays can feel like a psychological minefield. Keep the lines of communication with your doctor or counselor open and try to discuss healthy coping mechanisms beforehand.
The odds of the holidays being a happy time are best when you go into the season aware of what triggers stress and unhappiness for you. Take control of what you can to improve your health and well-being, whether that means limiting your social engagements, avoiding certain people or situations, or setting aside time to exercise each day.
I believe Cowan’s advice gives you a real shot at making this your best holiday season yet.