In continuing our holiday/seasonal blog series, Larisa Wainer, Psy.D. offers a guide to anticipating and managing stress, and mood symptoms, that often emerge during this time of the year.
The trees have shed their colorful adornments, intricate patterns of frost decorate your car window in the morning, and the stores are overflowing with cornucopia of indulgences. If in this unmistakable prelude to the holidays, you find yourself wrestling with anxiety, overwhelmed with stress or weighed down by sadness, you are in good company. Though the transition to fall and winter is marked by celebrations meant to capture appreciation, joy and closeness with loved ones, this time of year can, at times, feel like a challenge. Why might this be?
One possibility (at the light end of the diagnostic continuum) is that you might be suffering from a “summer hangover.” If you are a summer lover – the shorter days and cooler temperatures may be giving you a serious shiver, even as you sit by the fire, wearing a sweatshirt while sipping a hot cup of cocoa. If you have a great fondness for the beach and barbequing, but don’t appreciate wearing layers and digging out your ice scraper, now may not be YOUR season. What can you do to increase your chances of survival until the big thaw of spring? Try activities that bring some heat, such as cooking with warming spices, putting a few logs on a fire, visiting a sauna, taking a hot yoga class or planning a getaway closer to the equator (or a move to California). Try taking a break from your daily ritual of crossing off “days ‘till spring” to at least enjoy the best of seasonal activities, such as taking a fall hike on a warmer day or bundling up and getting into the snow with some skiing, snowshoeing or snowman building.
If your winter blues feels less like a “summer-is-over” pity party and more like a state of depression, it may be worthwhile to see whether you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern). For most people with SAD, symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter, resolving by spring time. They include: feeling down most of the day; losing interest in previously enjoyed activities; having low energy; feeling hopeless, guilty or worthless; difficulties with sleep; changes in weight and appetite; feelings of sluggishness or agitation; problems with memory or concentration; and thoughts of death or suicide. Though exact causes of SAD are not certain, Vitamin D levels, serotonin and melatonin are thought to play a role, with links to reduced exposure to sunlight – tougher to come by in the short daytime hours of the fall and winter seasons. If you think that you may be suffering from SAD, a health care practitioner can help you diagnose the condition and distinguish it from the more mild case of seasonal blues. Treatment options include psychotherapy, phototherapy (use of bright light exposure), and anti-depressant medications.
This time of year can bring forth sadness and anxiety even in those who might otherwise enjoy the season. Holidays stand out in our minds as a time when we “should be” happy. When traumatic events occur, the contrast between our experience and the joy of the season can be startling. In addition, old memories can surface since holidays serve as bookmarks for the chapters of our lives. This time can make prominent difficult events of the past year and absence of loved ones, whether it’s due to illness, separation, lack of contact or loss. If you or someone you know is grieving or feeling down this time of year, accept or offer social support to create space for a conversation or just some company. Acknowledging rather than avoiding the reality of pain can go a long way in providing an outlet to relieve the burden of appearing joyful when the heart is aching.
Strain in family relationships also comes into focus during the holiday season, which is why it is important to approach holiday time with collaboration and good planning. If there is tension with in-laws, it’s just not fair or good for the relationship to put a partner in the position of having to choose a side. The best approach is to work together to come up with a realistic plan. If the potential for open conflict is certain, doing separate holidays may be the best option; however, if civility is possible, spending holidays together may be in the best interest of your family as a whole. Visits can always be kept short and sweet. If lengthy traveling is involved, it may be worth planning to stay elsewhere (hotel, a friend’s house). To minimize tension, consider: inviting or focusing on interacting with others (i.e. friends, other family members, the kids); taking breaks (i.e. going outside for a phone call, running an errand, doing some dishes); planning activities that limit interaction (i.e. movies, shopping, a show); and staying away from hot topics. Couples need to work as a unit and come to each other’s rescue. Avoid high expectations, open criticisms of family differences and taking things personally! When possible, use humor and distraction, and find something nice to say or don’t say anything at all.
Even if your mood is good and your family is without much conflict, the steep increase in demands related to socializing, gift-giving and being “merry” with a number of activities during the holidays can create pressure, some years more than others. Feelings of stress and disappointment can emerge when you compare yourself to an ideal– within your own mind or based on what others are doing – made worse by the picture-perfect highlight reel of social media posts. Changes in routine and neglect of exercising, eating healthy and moderating alcohol intake can set up a post-holiday crash, especially with the arrival of December’s credit card bill statement. If you are feeling overwhelmed this season, give yourself permission to avoid overextending yourself: emotionally, financially or in terms of commitments. Feel free to scale down, so that you can still capture the spirit without the stress. Set a budget with your time, money, and energy, picking and choosing which activities you’d like to focus on this year! It’s okay to make your traditions flexible and accommodating to a given year. Perhaps you decline some invitations, post a family holiday photo online rather than do a mailing or leave the cookie baking to the bakery this time. Try to focus on the most important things about the holidays and keep an even keel!
Other topics in this series: