It’s like the old song says: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
But for some, the stress of the holiday season can make it seem like just the opposite.
“Plenty of people dread the holidays for a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Bernard Davidson, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. “People tend to have unrealistic expectations about this time of year, expecting things to be like what they see in movies and on TV — the perfect decorations, the perfect gifts. The way we see things can get distorted and one letdown means it’s all ruined.”
Managing expectations is key to preventing the holiday blues, he says. Other tips he offers to combat those feelings of sadness that can last throughout the season include:
Don’t compare yourself to others. “We tend to think the grass is always greener on the other side, thinking things like ‘Their family seems so perfect’ or ‘We can’t afford what they have.’ The reality is often different than we perceive,” he says, adding that social media has probably exacerbated the problem since people “tend to put up the nice pictures. People tend to take that and read into it and think ‘Wow. How come we’re not like that?’ When we compare ourselves to others we tend to exaggerate their happiness and success and minimize our own.”
Don’t overdo. The holidays offer plenty of opportunity to blow your budget, but overspending now only leads to feelings of despair when the bills arrive later — short-term relief for long-term stress. It’s also important not to overdo in other ways. “We tend to over eat, over drink and over party during the holidays. We feel like we’ve got to get it all in and can’t miss anything, which can cause anxiety and sluggishness.”
Be realistic. “Just like any other time of the year, you don’t have to feel completely happy all the time. Some days you may feel overstressed or a bit down, and that’s OK.”
Remember the reason for the season. “The holidays are about being with loved ones and giving to those who are less fortunate. Besides giving money or gifts, giving your time and your skills to help others can lift your spirits.” The holiday season is also a good excuse to bury the hatchet, renew old relationships and move on from past hurts.
Plan and prepare. Don’t wait until the last minute to check gifts off your list. “Last minute shopping is seldom stress free. Let yourself and your family have time to settle down and enjoy time together.” Planning time with your family or planning social gatherings if you live alone can help lift your spirits. You should also work to plan a healthy holiday season, Davidson says. “Monitor your drinking and diet and keep, or start exercising. No need to wait until the New Year.”
Set achievable goals. If you decide to make a list of New Year’s resolutions, think through what you want to change and then commit to the long-term process. “It’s important to have a realistic plan and be ready for setbacks and how you will deal with them. Measure your progress and celebrate small successes along the way.”
While the holiday blues affect more than 60% of people, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, those feelings tend to subside over time — usually by mid-January. It’s important to recognize when and if short-term sadness turns into long-term mental health problems, Davidson says. Symptoms like loss of pleasure, appetite increases or decreases, increased use of alcohol, feelings of hopelessness and persistent thoughts of self-harm are all signs of more serious mental health issues that would require the help of a professional, he says.