It’s the most wonderful time of the year…or is it? The festive season isn’t quite so jolly for everyone.
Maybe you’re feeling burnt out after yet another year of ‘unprecedented times’. Maybe every note of Michael Bublé’s Christmas album being piped loudly through the grocery shop’s speakers feels like a personal attack on your loneliness. Maybe you’d just prefer to take a nice long nap and wake up in January when all the fuss is over…
Why we feel this way
The December holidays have the potential to be lovely, of course. But when you examine the realities of this time of year, it seems ludicrous that we expect ‘merry’ to be the default. Here’s what we’re actually dealing with:
An extra helping of stress
“The festive season is busy and can be stressful,” says clinical psychologist Daniel Sher. “It’s often an expensive time and everyone is struggling financially right now. It involves complicated plans and logistics – not to mention spending time with family, which can often result in conflict.”
Unrealistic expectations and comparison
“A big thing for a lot of people is having unrealistic expectations about how your holidays and festive season are going compared to what you see in the media and on social media,” says Daniel. Which- ever culture you identify with, we’ve all somehow bought into the idea that this is a non-negotiable happy time. “But it can be difficult to live up to that in reality,” says Daniel.
December is also packaged as a conflicting mixture of celebration, family time and rest. If you haven’t iced 100 biscuits by hand, hosted the perfect dinner party, been on a yoga retreat and created Instagram-worthy memories with your family, it can feel like you’re doing the festive season wrong somehow.
Loss of purpose
There’s a marked change in routine around the holidays, too.
“You tend to have an absence of goal-directed activity, which otherwise provides people with a grounding sense of routine, consistency and structure (something we as humans really need),” says Daniel.
“A lot of us derive a huge sense of self-esteem and identity from our work. In this economic climate, we put most of our time and effort into our careers in order to survive. That means that, sometimes, other aspects of our lives can be neglected. Then during the holidays, when we suddenly don’t have work to occupy our days, we are confronted with the harsh starkness of our existence.”
If this is the case, it’s worth keeping an eye on. “If a person is so dependent on their work, and their work routine, in order to not feel down, then they may want to speak to somebody about the signs of burnout,” advises Daniel.
There’s nothing like the festive season to trigger or exacerbate your feelings of loneliness. There is a huge emphasis on family around this time, which can be tough if yours is absent, or if you’ve lost a loved one. Thanks to the entertainment industry, we’ve also bundled notions of romantic love into the festive season ideal. This makes Christmastime as triggering as Valentine’s Day if you’re someone who is unhappy with their relationship status.
Tips to beat the festive blues
Feel like this is you? Consider these tips to beat the festive blues:
Everything in moderation
The bubbly is flowing and ’tis the season to stuff one’s face, but try not to self- medicate with substances or food. |If you’re prone to the holiday blues, steer away from alcohol and drugs,” advises Daniel. “They’re going to exacerbate that feeling of loneliness and emptiness.”
“It’s easy for the holidays to just slip by, and you’re left feeling like you’re wallowing in a pit of nothingness. Instead, pre-emptively schedule in things that you want to do during this time,” says Daniel.
Choose ace activities
Trying to decide what to include in your holiday schedule? “There has been helpful research to identify the qualities of behaviours that are conducive to good mental health,” says Daniel. “When you’re choosing activities to do in order to feel better, they need to provide a sense of Achievement, Connection or Enjoyment (ACE). If something incorporates all three to a significant degree, you’re looking good, but a balance of different activities that tick at one box each is also great.”
Look after your body
Nobody’s suggesting you detox or start training for the Iron Man, but some light exercise, healthy meals and good sleep are critical at this time of year. “Physical exercise is great for anyone struggling with the holiday blues, thanks to the improvement in self-esteem and the mood-boosting qualities of exercise itself,” says Daniel.
Make time for yourself, without isolating
The social demands of this period can be incredibly draining, so make sure you’re reserving time for yourself, even if it’s just 20 minutes a day for a bath, a book or some gentle stretching.
On the flip side, monitor yourself to ensure you’re not going too far in the opposite direction. “Loneliness is a huge concern for millions around the world,” Daniel says. “While it’s not a formally recognised symptom of depression, it is a feature of it. This is because depression leads to decreased motivation and social withdrawal, so you become isolated as a function of it. And, of course, loneliness can then go on to exacerbate the existing depression.”
“If you are prone to the holiday blues, or you have a history of depression, anxiety or any psychological disorder, book a pre-holiday session with your treating psychologist or psychiatrist. Together you can work on putting strategies in place that can support you during this period.”
New year, same blues?
What do you do if the holidays are over but you’re still feeling down?
“You may have to consider the possibility that you actually have depression, and not just transient blues,” says Daniel. “If those feelings are persisting, then it’s definitely worth reaching out to a mental-health professional and getting an assessment, to see whether this is a depressive disorder. If it’s not, you can still work collaboratively with the health professional to improve things and be proactive about your feelings next time around.”
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