- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC
December 10, 2021
Even prior to the global pandemic, some have found themselves feeling stressed and sad during the holiday season. In recent years the addition of COVID-19 has certainly contributed another layer of stress to the hustle and bustle throughout November and December.
Symptoms of the holiday blues can include: situational sadness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, and tension (Watt, Paul & Tracy, 2021). Let us explore the common reasons people may find it difficult to be merry and bright during the holidays, and ideas on how to overcome the distress.
Those who experience holiday distress can feel completely alone even in a crowd of people. "Being surrounded by cheeriness can be stigmatizing when you don't feel the same enthusiasm as others" (McLean, 2021). "The pressure to be social, happy, and present can make it difficult to speak up if you feel otherwise."
While each individual's sadness and anxiety vary throughout the holidays, the holiday blues commonly stem from grief, unrealistic expectations, loneliness, exhaustion, over-indulgence and financial pressure. We will take a look at these a little closer and explore ways to prepare ourselves for anticipated challenges ahead.
Grief and loss associated with memories of a loved one
Holidays can be a very difficult time for those who have experienced loss. Mourners may will commonly experience heavy grief and sadness stemming from the "yearning or aching" to be with their loved one, or something or someone they miss (Watt, Paul & Tracy, 2021). Memories evoked from family gatherings and traditions can be coupled with a great deal of pain.
Those who are experiencing grief will need to attend to the emotions. "Honor what you're grieving, and it will help keep you connected to it" (Watt, Paul & Tracy, 2021). Often grief is the tip of the iceberg and layers of grief, and other difficult emotions like hurt, guilt, regret, isolation, anger and fear, might lie underneath. Paying attention your emotions, acknowledging them and talking with a support person during this time can be helpful. It is also helpful to commemorate your loved on by lighting a candle, wearing an article of their clothing, or writing a letter to them. It is important to give yourself permission to grieve; suppressing any emotions will not benefit you or those around you in the long run.
Setting unrealistic expectations
It is frequent that we set unattainable goals for ourselves during the holidays. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (2015) suggests setting reasonable expectations for yourself throughout the season is key. Create realistic goals, set attainable plans for yourself with regard to holiday activities, shopping, cooking, entertaining, attending parties, making gifts, or sending cards.
It is recommended to accept any limitations you may have and also be patient with others (Watt, Paul & Tracy, 2021). You will also want to remove any pressure placed on you by others or yourself to "create the most festively decorated home, bake professional-grade cookies, and find the 'perfect' holiday gifts." You do not want to engage in comparing anything you do to others as it may cause feelings of low self-worth. You are absolutely good enough.
Loneliness and isolation
Loneliness and isolation are often predictors of overwhelming sadness and depression. With two years of the world pandemic behind us and information and misinformation about a new variant broadcasting over media, this holiday season can feel particularly isolating.
It will be important to "remind yourself of the people, places, and things that make you feel happy" if even for moments of joy (McLean, 2021). Doing something for someone else can also feel connecting, even if it is sending out a letter, card, email, or text. "Consider scheduling a regular call or video chat with friends on a weekly or biweekly basis so you don't have to think twice about making the effort" (McLean). You may also want to engage in relaxing activities, such as mindfulness, meditation, a gratitude journal, or consider going to holiday displays, even on your own. Another powerful way to connect with others is volunteering in the community through the holiday season and beyond.
There is a tired that exists from lack of sleep; and then there is a tired that exists from being completely overwhelmed, which will be referred to as pure exhaustion.
Coping skills when overwhelmed can include: maintaining healthy habits, healthy nutrition, a decent night's sleep, and physical activity. Healthy habits can help ward off fatigue and function at our best (Watt, Paul & Tracy, 2021). Breaking down large tasks into smaller ones are equal to taking steps up a mountain. Each step is an accomplishment. Don't forget to take needed breaks, even if it is having to say "no" to an event, or just taking time to breathe.
Over-Indulgence in the "spirits" of the holidays
Over-eating, over-drinking, and drug use can contribute to the holiday blues, irritability, poor quality sleep, reckless behavior, accidents, relationship problems, and fatigue. Wyatt and colleagues (2021) explain, "excessive alcohol and/or drug use can alter our mind and our body's ability to manage our emotions."
McLean (2021) suggests we don't need to "force yourself to be happy" and that it's good to acknowledge feelings that aren't joyful; remember that you are not alone in feeling this way. Avoid numbing or avoiding feelings by using alcohol or other substances, which worsen anxiety and depression; and if possible, surround yourself with people who understand and support your health and well-being.
Many feel stressed by expectations of our own or what society seems to portray in commercialization and marketing, or social media. It is common to get caught up in the message being portrayed. However, it is our perception of that message that puts us in a place of anxiety. Only we can take the necessary steps to reduce it.
Some of the "richest" gifts given can be the gift of time with family. (Many people realized this even more during the pandemic.) We can give of ourselves to spend time with others, to make someone dinner, or even write a handwritten letter. Giving does not have to be about spending money. Being transparent with those around you and sticking with a budget within your means is the most helpful plan of action to prevent a worsening financial burden.
It is important to be attentive to your emotions and to take necessary action. "Short-term problems must still be taken seriously because they can lead to long-term mental health conditions" (NAMI, 2015).
Though the reasons for the holiday blues may vary, searching for comfort, peace, and moments of joy, can begin to ease despair. Should symptoms of depression or anxiety last longer than two weeks, it is wise to talk with your primary care physician or a mental health professional. You don't have to suffer alone.
Wishing you all moments of peace, comfort, and joy during the holiday season, and throughout the New Year.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached through emailing firstname.lastname@example.org calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org.
McLean Hospital, 2021. McLean's guide to managing mental health around the holidays. Retrieved
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2015, November 19. Tips for managing the holiday blues.
Watt, F., Paul, M., and Tracy, C., 2021, November 10. The holiday blues: Professional tips on how to cope.