Uneasiness During the Holiday Season
The holiday season is often portrayed in movies and commercials as a time of pure joy and happiness. For many, however, this time of year can lead to an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression, ultimately resulting in the holiday blues. Why is this, and what can be done about it?
There are a number of factors that can put a strain on our mental health during the holiday season—buying gifts for others and trying to wrap up work before the holidays are only a few. These extra burdens can leave us struggling with time management and financial strain and can impact our work-life balance.
To quote Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can choose your friends, but not your family.” This truism can seem particularly relevant this time of year. While spending time with our family and in-laws can bring moments of love and gratitude, it may also lead to unwanted interactions.
Self-esteem can be affected during this time of year as weight gain or unwanted changes in appearance is common. We are surrounded by food which can lead to excessive eating and drinking. Working out and being active is treated as less of a priority as our schedules fill up with parties, family gatherings, and other social interactions. Many people look to the new year as an opportunity to become a “better” version of themselves, which is an added pressure that can take a toll on mental health.
Seasonal Stress, Anxiety & Depression
The stresses that come from the holidays can exacerbate mental health struggles that come with changes in the season. Our natural rhythms can bias us towards hibernation mode as the days get shorter—this is even true if temperatures do not plummet in the winter where you live.
Similar to animals, some people feel a hibernation-like instinct more than others. In some, it is severe enough to be classified as a form of depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Unlike regular depression, SAD or “winter depression” usually disappears around springtime.
Common symptoms of SAD include:
- Low mood
- Loss of pleasure or interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Feelings of irritability
- Guilt and worthlessness
- Increased sleep
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased sex drive
Even if you do not meet the criteria for SAD, you may still experience some of these symptoms in the winter. They are thought to be the result of changes in our physiology due to reduced daylight hours. These biological changes can also interact with psychological factors, such as emotional health, trauma history, and stress levels. The lack of motivation and boredom that comes from staying inside more and reducing social interactions can exacerbate these symptoms.
What can you do if you’re not feeling your best this time of year? Here are some options:
Light boxes can be used to trick your brain into thinking it’s summertime. These boxes simulate daylight and are typically used for 10-20 minutes in the morning. They trigger a variety of neurochemical changes in the brain that impact energy levels and sleep function. Research has found that over half of people with SAD who use light boxes find it helps with their symptoms.
Exercise is a powerful way to kick-start your physiology into a more energetic and positive state, even more so when done outside in nature. Try walking or running as a simple start—you’ll find that getting out in the fresh air will have an immense impact on how you feel. For those with impaired use of their legs, kayaking or sledding are great winter activities.
Spend Time With People You Care About
Humans are social animals, and spending time with others can do wonders for our mental health. Socializing with people we care about can get us out of our heads and disrupt unhelpful rumination patterns. If you are not around your friends or family this time of year, meeting people through activities such as volunteering is a great option. Toy drives, coat drives, soup kitchens, and food banks all need help during the holidays, and doing things for others is a powerful route to a strong sense of well-being.
Mindfulness involves cultivating non-judgemental, present-moment awareness and can get us out of negative thought loops. To practice, we don’t have to be sitting cross-legged on a cushion. In fact, we can practice mindful awareness with almost anything we’re doing, such as eating, doing the dishes, or exercising. Related practices like breathwork, intention setting, art therapy, and journaling can also be helpful in maintaining our mental health throughout the year.
Finally, make time for self-care and recharging. As nice as it is to spend time with others, it’s also important to enjoy your own company.
Experiencing seasonal anxiety, stress, or depression is entirely normal, and it’s important to remember that you are not alone. As much as this time of year can be challenging, it’s also a beautiful time of gratitude and giving. Consider writing in a gratitude journal daily to remind yourself of the amazing things in your life. We can use the positivity of the holidays to be grateful, connect with others, and nurture ourselves.
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