Mental & Emotional Health
Why Are the Holidays So Hard and How Can You Get Through Them?
We’re supposed to be excited for the holidays. But if you’re like many people, you may find yourself dreading the upcoming season. Here, Graeme Cowan examines why so many of us feel unhappy, stressed, and depressed during the holidays—and offers strategies to help you get through them with your well-being intact.
With its sparkly decorations, family traditions, and festive get-togethers, this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. But for many of us, the holidays are the most woeful time instead. During this period, breakups, overindulgence in alcohol, financial pressure, overall stress, and even mortality rates spike. “Sure, each holiday season comes with its bright spots and good memories, but if you still find yourself wishing you could just fast-forward through the next few months, you’re not alone,” says Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2014, ISBN: 978-1-608-82856-2, $16.95, http://www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com).
“The truth is that the holidays are full of stressors and triggers that leave many of us feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or even unable to cope.” Before you resign yourself to another year of suffering from the holiday blues, Cowan urges you to take a deep breath, smell the pine trees, and take control of what you can. “Often, you can influence your holiday experience more than you think,” he says. “It’s all about identifying the factors that negatively affect your state of mind and making a conscious decision to avoid or minimize your exposure to those things.”
Here, Cowan spotlights eight factors that bring us down during the holidays and offers advice on how to deal with each one:
We force ourselves to spend time with nasty people. Your judgmental father-in-law. Your constantly one-upping cousin. Your critical frenemy. Your inappropriate coworker. Every holiday season, we voluntarily spend time with people like this in the name of fellowship, tradition, family, and the so-called “holiday spirit.” “Every year, we tell ourselves that this year will be different—we’ll avoid the arguments and keep the mood friendly,” notes Cowan. “But the truth is, if someone causes you anger or anxiety during the other 11 months of the year, it’s unlikely that things will be any different at a family holiday lunch or office party. Go into the situation with realistic expectations and remember that your well-being (not being polite!) is your first priority. If you feel your agitation rising, say, ‘Excuse me,’ and walk away. Then talk to someone else. Help in the kitchen. Play with the dog. Or just ride off into the sunset. Making yourself miserable by engaging with a nasty person just isn’t worth it.”
The holidays remind us of loss. Maybe you were laid off from your job or have been diagnosed with a disease in the past year—and you’re dreading the “So, what’s new in your life?” questions you’ll have to field at get-togethers. Or perhaps you’ve lost a parent or been through a divorce and are depressed by the thought of facing the holidays alone. “No matter what you’ve lost—your health, a loved one, a job, or something else—the holidays tend to highlight what’s missing in your life,” Cowan observes. “And unfortunately, there’s often no easy way to sidestep or dull the pain you’re feeling. As much as possible, enlist the support of your friends and family. They’ll provide a listening ear, they may help run social interference, and they’ll understand if you just don’t feel up to attending another party. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you’re struggling, either—there’s absolutely no shame in reaching out.”
We neglect our well-being. With so many holiday distractions and obligations, it’s all too easy for well-being strategies to fall by the wayside. We tell ourselves we’ll get back on the workout wagon, cut out the junk food, and catch up on our sleep after the new year…but those good intentions don’t cause us to feel any less exhausted or irritable right now. “My best advice is to plan ahead,” Cowan comments. “If you don’t, that yoga class, healthy homemade meal, or eight hours of sleep won’t happen. Remember, if you aren’t feeling your best physically or mentally, you won’t have the zest and purpose you need to enjoy the holidays. I suggest making a special effort to fit physical activity into your schedule. Research shows that a 20-minute brisk walk, or the equivalent, significantly improves mood for up to 12 hours, and exercise also improves the quality of your sleep.”
We compare ourselves to everyone else. Of course this happens throughout the year, but we’re especially prone to dwell on what others have (and we don’t) during this time of year. Maybe you’re going through a divorce, so spending time with your sister and her adoring husband makes you feel especially lonely. Or you’re struggling to make ends meet, so the fact that your best friend whisked his family off to the Bahamas makes you feel like a failure. “If you find that your mood is consistently affected by feeling less-than, you may need to go on a social media diet,” Cowan says. “I also encourage you to talk to someone else—whether that’s a trusted friend, clergyperson, or counselor—about what you’re feeling. Hopefully, this person can help you develop a healthier perspective by pointing out all the things you have to be proud of in your life. A focus on gratitude can be a game changer.”
Unhealthy triggers are all around us. For better or worse, the holidays are known for buffet lines, blowout meals, and boozy toasts. In moderation, food and drink can enhance the festivities, but more often, overindulgence contributes to poor health, self-recrimination, bad moods, and even worse decisions. (Be honest—you’d never have had last year’s awful argument with your brother if you hadn’t both been drinking…and you dread stepping on the scale after January 1st.) “When it comes to avoiding holiday overindulgence, mindfulness is key,” Cowan asserts. “Know what your triggers are and have a plan to manage or avoid those things. For instance, maybe you eat a healthy meal before heading to your friend’s cocktail party, wear pants with an unforgiving waistband, or ask your spouse to cut you off after one or two drinks—whatever works for you! Just don’t show up at eating-and-drinking events without a plan, because your good intentions won’t last long in the face of temptation.”
It’s cold and dark outside. Sure, you grumbled along with the rest of the country when it started to get dark before 6:00 p.m. and temperatures began to plummet…but you probably didn’t give the season change much more thought. However, Cowan reminds that these factors can have a very real impact on your holiday mood. “You’ve probably heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can cause sufferers to feel depressed, moody, and lethargic during the winter months,” he points out. “SAD affects millions of Americans. Have you ever considered that you may be one of them? Even if you’re not, everyone benefits from being outdoors and getting sunlight, which boosts your serotonin levels.”
We enjoy festivities…but we don’t enjoy paying for them. If you’re overspending on gifts, parties, food, decorations, and more, you won’t feel very festive. Instead, you’ll be brooding over your dwindling account balance and worrying about all of the bills you’ll receive once the celebrations are over. You may even begin to resent others for “forcing” you to buy them presents or attend costly events. “It can’t be said enough: Setting (and sticking to) a holiday budget can make this time of year so much more enjoyable,” says Cowan. “Figure out how much you can comfortably spend, identify priorities, and record each expenditure. Also, remember that money and value aren’t necessarily synonymous. You might consider having a potluck with friends instead of exchanging gifts, or writing a heartfelt note of appreciation to family members.”
The holidays can exacerbate depression or anxiety. If you’re suffering from clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, you’re struggling with a lot more than “just” the holiday blues. Typical holiday stressors can seem overwhelming, and the knowledge that you’re “supposed” to be carefree and happy can make you feel even worse. “As someone who has struggled with severe depression, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you prioritize your well-being above others’ expectations,” Cowan insists. “With their social expectations and reminders of loss, the holidays can feel like a psychological minefield. Make sure you keep the lines of communication with your doctor or counselor open and try to discuss healthy coping mechanisms beforehand.” “The holidays can certainly be a time of joy and happiness,” concludes Cowan. “The odds of that happening are highest when you go into the season with an awareness of what triggers stress and unhappiness for you. Take control of what you can to improve your health and well-being, whether that means limiting your social engagements, avoiding certain people or situations, or setting aside time to exercise each day. May the best in life, love, and happiness be ahead of you this holiday season!”
Graeme Cowan is the author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2014, ISBN: 978-1-608-82856-2, $16.95, http://www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com). He is also a speaker who helps people build their resilience, well-being, and performance. Despite spending most of his career as a senior executive in Sydney, Australia, with organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and A.T. Kearney, Graeme had struggled with depression for more than 20 years. Graeme reemerged with not just a best-selling Australian book series to his name but a new attitude toward the way individuals approach recovery.
He is also the author of the report “The Elephant in the Boardroom: Getting Mentally Fit for Work,” which highlights that 86 percent of people with a mood disorder in the workplace would rather suffer in silence than discuss their illnesses with colleagues. Cowan is one of Australia’s leading speakers and authors in the area of building resilience and mental health, and has appeared regularly on national Australian television and radio and had articles written in the Australian Financial Review on workplace health. He is also a director of the R U OK? Foundation, whose slogan is “A Conversation Could Change a Life” (www.ruokday.com), and was supported in its launch campaign with video promotions from Australian actors Hugh Jackman, Simon Baker, and Naomi Watts. Cowan is passionate about sharing his journey and helping others to find hope, know they are not alone, and find a way back from the brink.