When the Holiday Season Isn’t Always Merry and Bright

During the holidays, it feels like you can’t go anywhere without hearing familiar songs like “Jingle Bell Rock” and “All I Want for Christmas is You,” (seemingly played on repeat) or seeing greens, reds, and poinsettias everywhere. Conversation turns to holiday planning, annual family traditions, and gifts galore. While the season is often associated with festivity and cheerfulness, it can be the most difficult time of year for many struggling with mental illness. 

Commonly known as the “Holiday Blues,” this surge of loneliness, stress, and anxiety is experienced most often during the holiday season, starting around Thanksgiving and lasting through the new year. These “blues” are believed to stem from feelings of pressure associated with high expectations that come during this time of year.

While many experience joy and happiness, unrealistically high expectations for how things “should feel” can often drive feelings of sadness, loneliness, or dissatisfaction in others. It is easy for people to feel like they don’t fit in, or can’t achieve the “picture perfect” happy holiday when they see everyone around them in a festive holiday spirit. While these feelings are most often temporary and disappear with time, symptoms that last longer than two weeks may lead to clinical anxiety or depression.   

Understanding Loneliness and the Holiday Blues

This time of year, conversation inevitably turns to time spent with friends, family, and loved ones. While exciting to some, this can heighten feelings of loneliness and social isolation for others, potentially triggering other chronic mental health conditions. A study conducted by NAMI revealed that 64% of people reported that the holidays make their conditions worse. 66% of these respondents reported experiencing feelings of loneliness, while 63% noted feeling too much pressure or unrealistic expectations (57%). 

When the world seems to be saying that everything is “merry and bright,” the season’s many stressors are often overlooked, loneliness primary among them. Holiday parties can be triggering for those of us battling crippling anxiety or depression, or for those enduring relationship issues like break-ups or divorce. Surprisingly, being surrounded by acquaintances or even close friends is no antidote to feelings of loneliness. Today we understand loneliness to be a subjective, emotional state, independent of solitude or even the presence of friendship. It is a distressing feeling of disconnection, a perception that one’s social needs are not being met by existing social relationships.

Beyond loneliness, the holidays invite a complicated array of feelings that may exacerbate existing behavioral health conditions. Expenses associated with expectations of gift giving and setting up festive decorations can spike anxiety even in the most even-keeled people. Annual reunions and traditions around the holidays can make us feel immense pressure to seem like our happiest or best selves. But it can also have an unintended consequence that can kickstart a vicious cycle of self-doubt and sadness. Also nerve wracking can be the anticipation of facing the challenging personalities of certain loved ones we see only during certain times of the year. An additional layer of uneasiness includes pandemic-era considerations of personal safety and health concerns that also contribute to people’s anxiety list.  

How do I Know if I have the Holiday Blues? 

While it might feel like everyone else is full of happiness and joy, loneliness, depression and anxiety around the holidays can affect anyone. Some level of stress around logistics, safety, and planning is to be expected, but larger shifts may signal something deeper. 

Signs include: 

  • Persistent feelings of depression or loneliness that do not lift after several days
  • Losing interest in activities or experiences that you once enjoyed
  • Repeated disruption to your normal sleep pattern or recurring insomnia 
  • Heightened anxiety and nervousness that does not subside

These hallmarks of the “holiday blues” should be somewhat temporary and begin to lift once the season wraps. Should you continue to experience any of these symptoms for more than a few weeks, contact your doctor or therapist to discuss screenings and treatment options. 

Coping with the Holiday Blues

For those grappling with intense feelings of loneliness or depression during this time of year, the good news is that the holiday season is finite – and there are a myriad of ways to cope. Finding ways to navigate the stressors of the season can help make it less challenging for those battling the holiday blues. Here are a few reminders and tips to help you or your loved one better navigate the season:

  • Know that boundaries are healthy. If the idea of attending one too many holiday parties or happy hours has you feeling overwhelmed, remember that you need not succumb to the pressure and RSVP “yes” to every event. Declining an invitation or staying for only a short while can help you define healthy boundaries that leave you feeling stronger and more confident at the gatherings you choose to take part in. Listen to yourself and set a tone or cadence that will be right for you. Others will always understand when you make choices that preserve your mental health. 
  • Take a break from social media. While social media’s snapshots in time can project a sense of perfection – or an ideal holiday – remember that a picture can never share an entire story. It is easy to draw assumptions about one’s happiness or life from a frozen moment in time, whereas the real story is often much more complicated. Viewing these posts can often convey a skewed perspective on what life can – or should – be like. In fact, clinical studies indicate that repeated social media use can undermine happiness. During the stressful holiday period, consider taking a hiatus from social media. Not only will it reduce your interaction with potentially harmful posts or pictures that impact your mental health, you’ll be more receptive to connecting in real-time with those around you. 
  • Start your own traditions. Pressure to act, be, or feel a certain way during this time of year can take its toll. If existing traditions or habits are not bringing you joy, seize the opportunity to break from expectation and establish some traditions of your own. To get started, begin to reflect on what truly makes you happy. Explore the idea of what a perfect day would look like to you: Who would you spend it with? Where would you be?  Consider adopting as many of these activities or experiences as possible. Before you know it, you’ll have established your own new set of festivities around the holiday that bring you joy, thereby taking steps to reshape your view on what the holidays mean and how they feel. 
  • Most importantly, be gentle on yourself. Allow expectations and pressures to roll right off you. While it may feel like everyone is looking to you to help create perfect moments, when you are up for it, your presence alone is always enough. You can never make everyone happy, but you can help protect yourself from the demands of the season by choosing to engage only in those festivities, traditions, and events that will be rewarding for you.  

Remember, during this time of the year, we can all be an ally or an advocate for others experiencing the holiday blues. Reaching out to connect with friends, acquaintances, or loved ones to check in can make all the difference. Open up your heart and your home to those who may need some extra love and understanding. By being kind to yourself and to others, you’ll capture the true spirit of the season, and help ensure it’s a happier and more joyful time for all. 

The holiday season is always a busy time for behavioral health agencies. To help keep your organization’s financial and clinical operations running smoothly, consider an EHR designed especially for practices like yours. To learn more about how NextStep Solutions is purpose-built to help behavioral health practices operate at their best, please contact us today. 

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