This time of year we are bombarded with messages telling us to be “merry,” “happy” and “joyful.” But for many of us, the holidays can also bring feelings of stress, isolation and loneliness.
It’s no secret that difficult interactions with family, unmet expectations and even past losses can all come into focus in unique, often overwhelming ways over the holidays. The causes of mood fluctuations are as varied as there are people, and the increased busyness, pressures around social interaction, or reminders about the distance from or loss of family are common experiences that can heighten the emotional volume in our lives over the holidays.
It can be comforting to remember that these emotions aren’t unusual, and you’re not alone in feeling them. It’s also helpful to consider these emotions often aren’t necessarily the core of the problem. Rather, the way we respond to these feelings can lead to unhealthy coping and patterns that get us into more trouble. Often our habits of avoiding, denying or trying to escape from our emotions lead to more challenges with stress, anxiety and depression.
Thankfully, there are things we can do to understand our habits and unhealthy responses so we can still enjoy the holidays. For starters, simply taking a bit of extra time to identify these emotions and engage in self-care can be extremely useful tools to prevent spiraling into a cycle of negative coping. Often, just compassionately acknowledging that we are feeling more emotions than usual and that this season can be hard is often a first step in preventing getting into these negative cycles.
But acceptance does not mean wallowing. Take the time to maintain the healthy routines that you rely on the rest of the year to take care of yourself. Opportunities to get together with supportive friends, exercise, go to church or just get a bit of alone time can be important ways of riding the wave of emotions that often seem to get a bit bigger over the holidays.
It’s also helpful to be aware of our own internal pressures of having the “perfect” holiday. Strive to prioritize quality time with friends and family. Also, recognize that holiday gatherings will be different as new relationships begin and families change. Making new holiday traditions, even while embracing those special ones from the past, can bring added meaning to the holidays.
And while at some parties and get-togethers having spirits to get into the holiday spirit is custom, it’s always a good idea to be mindful about the ways we consume alcohol, particularly if you are someone who may use drinking as a way to escape from difficult emotions.
Lastly, stay connected to the supportive relationships in your life. They can offer a needed boost when we are feeling down or help us identify when we may have gotten off track.
With those healthy steps in mind, it’s important to think about when to seek professional help. While stress and emotions are very normal and common, depression is something more challenging. Depression can occur when these changes in our mood and behavior begin to have a significant negative impact on our life and relationships.
If you or others notice you are more down than usual or if these changes are getting in the way of your work, social or personal life, that is the time to consider talking with your primary care doctor or a therapist or psychiatrist. Consulting with a specialist can help you think about whether what you are experiencing is part of the normal ebb and flow of moods or if there are more significant concerns.
Examples of these concerning patterns can include isolating or pulling away from others; consuming alcohol or other substances more heavily or in problematic ways; having trouble completing daily tasks or caring for yourself in basic ways; or even having thoughts of dying or of suicide.
The good news is that treatment and management of mood difficulties and depression can be very effective. Don’t hesitate to seek support if you are noticing difficulty with depression.
Have a happy, and healthy, holiday season.
Brian Goetsch, Psy.D., is an assistant professor at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and a practicing psychologist at the OSU Behavioral Medicine Clinic.