By Michael Shrifter, PsyD, licensed psychologist at The Portland Clinic.
If you sometimes feel stressed or down during the winter holidays, you’re not the only one. The holiday blues are real, and they’re very common. In fact, 38% of people recently surveyed by the American Psychological Association said that their stress levels went up during the holidays.
A whole host of factors can trigger the holiday blues, from a reduction in sunlight to changes in your routine to rampant commercialism. Add in the extra doses of stress, unrealistic expectations or sentimental memories and it’s easy to see why so many of us end up feeling sad, lonely, fatigued or tense at a time that’s supposed to be merry and bright.
With the holidays just around the corner, now is the time to adopt some effective strategies to keep the blues at bay. Here are my top 10:
1. Make self care your priority
Don’t abandon your usual healthy habits. You still need to get enough sleep, eat right and get regular exercise. Skimping on these will only add to your stress. Make it a priority to take care of yourself as if it’s any other time of the year.
2. Reach out
If you feel lonely or isolated, it’s very important to surround yourself with people. Get in touch with your community, church or other social groups and join in events that can offer support and companionship.
3. Consider volunteering
Helping others is a wonderful way to lift your spirits, broaden your friendships and feel better about yourself.
4. Acknowledge your feelings
If you’ve lost someone close to you or you can’t be with your loved ones over the holidays, understand that it’s perfectly normal to feel sadness or grief. Allow yourself to experience your real feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holidays.
5. Plan ahead
Set aside specific days for shopping, baking or visiting friends — and remember to pace yourself. You don’t have to do everything in one day. Planning ahead helps you to manage your time, which in turn allows you more time to take care of yourself.
6. Learn to say no
Saying yes to every invitation and event may sound fun, but could leave you feeling overextended and overwhelmed. Set personal limits. Your friends and family members will understand.
7. Make a budget
If finances stress you out during the holidays, decide what you can afford to spend, and stick to your budget. Look for creative ways to stay on track, such as giving homemade gifts or starting a family gift exchange where each person buys just one gift.
8. Take some downtime
Spending even 15 minutes alone — walking, listening to music, reading or just kicking back with your eyes closed — may refresh you enough to handle everything else you need to do.
9. Be realistic
The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change, too. Choose a few traditions to hold onto, but try to be open to creating new ones, as well. For example, if you’re a parent and your adult children can’t join you this season, find new ways of coming together, such as sharing photos or video chats.
10. When needed, seek professional support
Be aware of your limits and check in with yourself emotionally from time to time. There is only so much you can handle on your own. If, despite your best efforts, you find yourself feeling persistently sad, anxious, sleepless, irritable or hopeless, you may need more help. Psychologists and other behavioral health professionals can provide important support to prevent a temporary case of holiday blues from turning into a longer-term problem with anxiety or depression.
Perhaps one of the best things any of us can do is to remember that the holiday season only lasts a few weeks. Most of the time, the holiday blues are temporary, too. If they start to get you down, take a step back, look at the bigger picture of your life, and refocus on all that you have. The Thanksgiving spirit that ushers in the holiday season can be a powerful force to help see us through to the New Year.