By Matthew Totsky
The decorations and the tree. Carols and candy canes. Stockings and shopping. Eggnog and the annual viewing of A Miracle on 34th Street. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza or even Festivus, for many people, the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year.
But for others, this time can be overwhelming and a source of a severe case of the blues leading to feelings of loneliness, sadness, depression and anxiousness. Fortunately, steps can be taken to help combat these feelings, including learning how to manage expectations and goals.
Too Much Too Soon
The sheer number of holiday messages that bombard the public can be a driving force for holiday anxiety. It seems that at the exact moment retailers are clearing Halloween costumes and candy from their shelves, they are replacing them with ornaments, tinsel and other seasonal merchandise. This gives people little time to recover from one holiday before having to prepare for another.
“Advertising has made it impossible to escape the seductive nature and promise of holiday joy and euphoria that the season can bring,” says Kate K. Smith, MA, LLP, of the Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy. “When people keep trying to always ‘do things the right way,’ it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on them to be a part of everything. This leads to unrealistic expectations of us — and of others — to achieve the perfect holiday experience.”
Carrie Krawiec, Smith’s colleague at the Birmingham Maple Clinic and a licensed marriage and family therapist, agrees.
“I think the problems people face during the holidays are the same as the ones they face year-round, but they’re just heightened,” she says. “One phrase I often repeat to my clients is ‘happiness equals reality minus expectations.’ The idea behind this is that one is most likely to be happy if reality and your expectations are close to the same and reasonable.
“One remedy for this particular situation is to start identifying reasonable alternatives for every overwhelming thought,” Krawiec continues. “For example, if someone feels ‘everyone should get along because it’s the holidays,’ it’s reasonable to counter that by understanding it’s normal for people to not get along 100 percent of the time. From there, other alternatives can be worked out.”
Loneliness is another all-too-common feeling for people during the holiday season. People often feel down and blue when it appears that they might not fit in with a traditional or classic holiday message or picture. Newly divorced individuals, members of broken families, people without partners, those who’ve become estranged from their families or those who have recently lost a loved one fall into this category.
“Holidays may be especially sentimental times when we miss loved ones who are no longer alive or in our lives,” says Lori Edelson, LMSW, LMFT, at the Birmingham Maple Clinic. “It’s important during this time to give yourself permission to grieve, to cry and to miss these special people. It is also important to monitor or even steer clear of mind- and mood-altering substances you use during these times. These substances can intensify agitation and depression and aggravate an already-tense situation.”
Brian Hicks, Ph.D., research assistant professor at the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, has another solution to combat holiday loneliness: Try not to be alone.
“Don’t just let the holidays happen to you — get active and do something,” he says. “And doing something with other people — even for a little while — is usually a good idea.
“If a friend invites you to their family gathering, take them up on it,” he continues. “You can always leave early if you don’t like it. And if you know of other people who are alone, invite them to celebrate the holiday in some way, even if it’s just going to see a movie or sharing a meal. Call the people you can’t see or others you haven’t talked with in a while.
“Even brief conversations can help to make you feel more connected. And volunteering your time to help others can also have positive effects. This is something people rarely think about or actually follow through on doing, but there is a great deal of scientific evidence showing it actually helps people who are helping others to feel better about themselves.”
When It’s All Over
The days immediately following the holidays can be very difficult for some, especially if the whole experience failed to meet one’s expectations. In order to effectively deal with this, Krawiec suggests some preventive methods.
“I advise people to set goals early, before the holidays are in full swing,” she says. “Instead of broad goals like ‘I must feel happy all season,’ consider something specific like ‘I’m going to name one thing or person I’m thankful for each day.’
“Small daily objectives can have more positive effects instead of broader goals that are difficult to quantify. Goals that are negative, like ‘don’t spend too much money,’ also aren’t realistic. I suggest trying to replace those thoughts with something tangible, like ‘for each gift I buy I’m going to put $5 in my savings.’ The idea being that by telling yourself what you are going to do, you are more likely to do it and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the process.”
Hicks agrees with this approach.
“People need to be aware of their negative feelings or behaviors,” he says. “Once you notice, ask yourself ‘why?’ The key is if you can identify the source of the discomfort, you can then start to take steps to do something about it. Having a plan and being proactive are good solutions to overcome these issues — especially during the holidays.” NS