McLean’s Guide to Managing Mental Health Around the Holidays

Experts share the best ways to manage if your days aren’t all merry and bright

Elvis once crooned about feeling blue at Christmas time—and we’re here to tell you: It’s perfectly normal to feel that way.

There are a variety of reasons why your days may not be merry and bright around the holiday season. It can be the jam-packed social calendar, deadlines at work, the loss of a loved one, sunless winter days, or all of the above.

According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of people surveyed said their stress increased during the holiday season, which can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. The reasons given: lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings.

To make matters worse, the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays.

However, there are ways in which we can prepare ourselves and hopefully deflect some of the increased stress of the holidays. It’s important to realize that we do have more control than we think we do. However, it’s equally important to realize that even if we put these ideas into practice and continue to feel overwhelmed or depressed, professional help is available.

We’ve identified six common issues that come up this time of year, as well as suggestions from our mental health experts for ways to address them.

1. You’re Lacking the “Holiday Spirit”

Being surrounded by cheeriness can be stigmatizing when you don’t feel the same level of enthusiasm as others.

The pressure to be social, happy, and present can make it difficult to speak up if you feel otherwise. You may also feel left out if your spiritual traditions aren’t the dominant ones on display this time of year.

What You Can Do About It

  • Recognize that you 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
  • If possible, surround yourself with people who feel similarly; celebrate your traditions or create new ones

According to Elsa Ronningstam, PhD, a psychologist at McLean Hospital, “It’s important to understand that triggers for holiday angst come from many sources. Memories, stressful patterns that seem to occur every holiday, or potential new crises are common triggers,” she said.

Ronningstam added that preparing yourself by understanding how different triggers affect you can help reduce stress. Additionally, by finding out why you become anxious or sad around the holidays, you may be able to navigate the rest of the season.

Pushing Back Against Feelings of Loneliness

Three women shopping together during the holidays

Feeling alone can be especially hard to handle during the holidays. Dr. Lisa Coyne helps us push back against feelings of loneliness.

Three women shopping together during the holidays

2. You’re Overwhelmed by Grief and Loss

If you are living with grief, loss, trauma, or loneliness, it can be easy to compare your situation to others’, which can increase feelings of loneliness or sadness. Take time to check in with yourself and your feelings and have realistic expectations for how the holiday season will be.

If you are dealing with loss or grief, gently remind yourself that as circumstances change, traditions will change as well.

What You Can Do About It

If holiday observances seem inauthentic right now, you do not need to force yourself to celebrate. During this time, connect with and plan to check in with a support group, a therapist, a faith community, or friends who understand.

As much as possible, let your loved ones know how they can support you, whether it’s helping you with shopping or meeting up for a regular walk. Often, people want to help but don’t know what to say or where to start.

3. You’re Feeling Pressured to Participate in Activities—and Want No Part of Them

We all have our own personal history with holidays. We dream about the ways the holidays are supposed to be, which can be a dangerous perspective. We get caught up in wanting to do it all, but we can aim to set more realistic expectations for ourselves and others.

What You Can Do About It

  • Accept your limitations and be patient with others too
  • Try to see others’ points of view and recognize that we’re all feeling at least a little stressed—especially this year
  • Prioritize the most important activities or schedule get-togethers for after the holidays: If you feel overwhelmed by social obligations and what others are asking of you, learn how to be comfortable saying “no”
  • Expectations to celebrate holidays in a specific way can bring up old trauma or family conflicts; for self-care, consider outlining your plan for the season
  • Speaking of self-care, make a schedule of when you will do your shopping, baking, cleaning—and be sure to schedule time to take care of yourself
  • You may choose not to celebrate at all—instead of spending the holidays the way you think you should, you might opt for an activity you actually feel like doing—whether it’s making a favorite dish or having a Netflix marathon
  • Regardless of your plans, it can be helpful to communicate intentions to friends and family early in the holiday season so everyone knows what to expect

4. You’re Stressed About Giving Gifts

According to McLean’s Mark Longsjo, LICSW, it’s very common to get caught up in the commercialization and marketing of the holidays. We can feel stressed about spending on a strained budget or from trying to find just the right gift.

“Advertisers will take advantage of our susceptibility,” Longsjo said, “but we have the ability to put it in perspective and remind ourselves that we are the ones creating that anxiety, and we are the ones who can reduce it.”

Giving to others is not about spending money. And of course, what goes along with setting realistic expectations is maintaining a budget and being transparent.

What You Can Do About It

Consider how much money you can comfortably spend and stick to the amount. If purchasing gifts for everyone is difficult, consider having a Secret Santa or White Elephant exchange to reduce the number of items everyone needs to buy. You can also simply let people know you are unable to give gifts this year.

“It’s an old adage, but sometimes personal gifts—like a poem, short story, or framed photo—are the best ones,” Longsjo said.

You can also give the gift of helping a neighbor, a friend, a family member, or a stranger. It’s the act of giving that is more important than a present. Our generosity can be a gift to ourselves, because when we focus on others, and less on ourselves, we tend to reduce our anxiety.

5. There’s Not Much Sunlight at All, and It’s Affecting Your Mood

In the northern hemisphere, the holidays coincide with winter’s lack of available sunlight. Less exposure to natural light can lead to new or increased symptoms of depression.

What You Can Do About It

Try to get as much sunlight as possible.

To boost your mood and regulate sleep, schedule outdoor exercise in the middle of the day when the sun is brightest. If you can, work near a window throughout the day. Even outfitting your home with warm, bright lighting can help improve your mood. Many traditions this time of year incorporate candles and twinkling lights for a reason.

If you feel the need to slow your pace and hunker down this time of year, consider reframing the winter months as an opportunity to work on “quieter” projects and activities suited for the indoors, such as writing, knitting, or taking online courses.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a more severe form of the winter blues. According to researchers, the percentage of people in the United States who struggle with SAD ranges from 1.5% in southern Florida to 9% in northern states.

If you feel hopeless, have suicidal thoughts, or changes in appetite and sleep patterns, talk to your doctor. Effective treatments for SAD include light therapy, talk therapy, and medication.

Self-Care Is Important

Especially during the holidays. Sign up now for our webinar series supporting mental health and wellness.

6. You’re Alone or Feeling Isolated

While it’s true that many of us have friends and family to connect with during the holiday season, there’s also the danger of becoming isolated. If you are predisposed to depression or anxiety, it can be especially hard to reach out to others.

What To Do About It

Remind yourself of the people, places, and things that make you feel happy. 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.

Take advantage of other ways to connect, including sending out holiday cards and communicating with family and friends by phone, text, email, and social media.

Calming activities, such as reading, meditating, and gratitude journaling, can be helpful if you don’t feel comfortable in social situations.

Don’t forget about self-care. We know the importance of a balanced diet, moderate exercise, and plenty of sleep, but because there are so many distractions and stressors this time of year, we lose sight of some of the basic necessities. We need to take care of ourselves and pay increased attention to ensuring we fulfill these areas of our lives as we get closer to the holidays.

Should I Talk to a Doctor?

Talk to your mental health professional or your primary care physician if you have been feeling anxious or depressed for more than two weeks, or if the holidays are long gone and you are still feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed.

Do you or a loved one need mental health care or support? McLean Hospital is here to help. Call us now at 877.646.5272 to learn more about treatment for depression, stress, or anxiety.