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When Cecelia’s husband passed away without warning on December 7, she told her children that she had no interest in celebrating Christmas that year.
“Christmas Eve was our day,” she said, and it wouldn’t be right to host a celebration while coping with such a great loss. Her family thought gathering her family together would be good for her.
“The first year was difficult—everyone cried a lot at dinner,” Cecelia said. “There was a big emptiness at the table.” She thought the next year would be different. “But it wasn’t, and I felt the same emptiness as the year before. But on top of that, I felt guilty. Like I should be in the holiday spirit, and I wasn’t. That was our time, and without him, I didn’t want to pretend like I still loved it.”
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, dark and cold weather, or even all the above. According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of people surveyed said their stress increased during the holiday season. The reasons given: lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings. The National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays.
While everyone around you may seem joyous, it’s important to remember that being unhappy during the holidays is OK. It is a normal way to feel and there are plenty of other people who feel the same way.
Being surrounded with cheeriness can be stigmatizing when you don’t feel the same level of enthusiasm. The pressure to be social, happy, and present can make it difficult to speak up if you don’t feel like being any of those things.
If you are living with grief, loss, trauma, or loneliness, it can be easy to compare your feelings to others, which can increase feeling lonely or sad.
“The expectation to be merry and bright during the holidays can also create a sense of losing control over life or being an outcast for not fitting in,” says Dr. Elsa Ronningstam, a psychologist at McLean Hospital. “It may also increase the feeling of anger for facing the demand to have to fit in, which can result in a range of problematic and conflict-inducing behavior.”
She added that you don’t need to force yourself to be happy and that it’s good to acknowledge feelings that aren’t joyful. She also suggests finding out why you become anxious, sad, or stressed around the holidays, which may help you better navigate the rest of the season.
If this is the first challenging holiday for you, the tenth, or you are helping a loved one navigate the holidays, there are many ways to cope with the holiday season:
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 things change, traditions will change as well.
Gina shares, “When I was younger, the holiday season used to be pure joy, but now I have mixed emotions. Each year there is another relative missing from the holiday table—parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles that are no longer with us. That sense of loss has become an inevitable part of the holidays for me. I balance those feelings of grief and loss with finding comfort in spending the holidays with a whole new generation of our family.”
Fewer hours of daylight in the winter can lead to increased symptoms of depression. Good sleep habits and exercising regularly can help. If you experience depression or anxiety, consider drinking less alcohol, as it can worsen symptoms of both illnesses.
According to Dr. Ronningstam, it’s important to understand that triggers for holiday angst comes from many sources. Memories, stressful patterns that seem to occur every holiday, or potential new crises are common triggers.
“Expectations to celebrate holidays in a specific way can bring up old trauma, or family conflicts,” says Dr. Ronningstam. “For many, it can be important for their own self-care to outline a plan for the holiday. This can include not celebrating it at all and doing something they want to do, like a hobby or going to the movies.”
Preparing yourself by understanding how different triggers affect you can help reduce stress during the holiday season.
Be patient with other people and be patient with yourself. It can be very easy to feel weighed down by perfectionism and happiness in the holiday season. If you feel overwhelmed by social obligations and what others are asking of you, learn how to be comfortable saying “no.”
All mental health conditions can be manageable if people reach out for help when needed. 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.