Why the Holidays Don’t Make Everyone Feel So Jolly

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With all the celebrations around the holidays, mental health experts say it’s worth remembering that mood disorders and emotional issues may also climb as gatherings and social pressures magnify certain tensions.

People who suffer from anxiety and depression, for example, can have their already fragile emotions strained to the breaking point from all the stress of meeting holidays obligations. And if there has been a sorrowful event during the year, the end of the year can revive the trauma. “If there has been a loss in the family, whether it’s a death or the first year going through a divorce,  the holidays are always extra hurtful and sad. People don’t know how to get through it, how much they should do [to celebrate]. It’s a difficult,” says Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in private practice in State College, Penn.

But the challenges do not, as many believe, lead to a spike in suicides over the holidays. According to a 2012 study from the University of Pennsylvania‘s Annenberg Public Policy Center, the average highest suicide days actually occur in the spring and summer.

And, according to some experts, the stressful season does not lead to more new diagnoses for depression or other mood disorders. “I do not see any change in my practice at the times of holidays. I am always busy,” says Rosalind Dorlen, a private practice clinical psychologist in Summit, New Jersey.

But she acknowledges that the holidays can be particularly isolating for some people. “Many people do experience exacerbated feelings of loneliness, and sadness, particularly people who do not have family connections and people who anticipate their family time with high hopes and then have them shattered when things don’t work out so well at the holidays,” she says. “I think that people tend to be more stressed out over the holidays, and I think some of that stress is the increased by the frenzy and fanaticism of getting everything done and under the tree.”

Social obligations and expectations can also test those who may be feeling vulnerable; the newly sober, for example, may find themselves surrounded by others who are drinking heavily and enjoying the celebration, and have problems fighting the urge to join in. Those dealing with eating disorders may also have a hard time when they are surrounded by food and concerned friends and family. And sometimes it’s just being in the presence of a family member you don’t get along with can put you on edge.

But very often, clinical psychologists say the primary cause of the holiday blues are unrealistic expectations. “Perfectionists with high expectations really have a difficult time,” says Rodino. “I think adjusting one’s expectations for one’s family is a really important thing. I have clients who want this concept of a Norman Rockwell family, and it’s hard to find those real Norman Rockwell families. People have them, but they’re in paintings,” says Dorlen.

The solution? Psychologists suggest trying these strategies to make it through the holidays by avoiding the blues:

  • Handle potential stressors early-on: Holiday planning is hectic, so get stuff done early, and refrain from going over the top and being realistic about which tasks and obligations are possible and which are not. “It’s important to stay within your budget [over the holidays] and plan your gifts in advance. Keep in mind that you can’t buy happiness with a gift,” says Rosalind.
  • Get enough sleep and exercise: Both can cut down on stress, and will help you feel healthy and have less guilt about all the parties and dinners.
  • Keep your routine: Don’t stop doing what makes you feel good, even if you’re busier. “Some people say that their daily exercise is the first thing to go, but keep it up. Relax more, and make sure your routine doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of the holidays,” says Rodino.
  • Be aware: Remember that it’s normal to not always feel jolly during this time of year, and that’s okay. If you’re feeling particularly depressed, talk to someone.