Understanding and Coping with the Holiday Blues

When I was a child, I was obsessed with Christmas, like I suppose most kids are. But, I knew that when the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” came on, things would get sad very quickly. As a first generation American, all I knew were small celebrations around the Christmas tree with my five person family. But, my mother remembered raucous holidays with a house full of siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. While I dreamed of sugar plum fairies and Santa squeezing down a chimney, my mother was just trying to power through.

During the holiday season, it is very common for people to experience depression and/or anxiety. Local anxiety counselor Amanda Morris shares, “For those who’ve experienced major life stressors such as the death of a loved one; a breakup; addiction; or financial hardship, the holiday season can be almost unbearable. The nonstop Christmas music, store decorations, TV commercials, and movies tell us how we ‘should’ be full of joy and anticipation, so if you’re hurting, it may worsen feelings of loneliness, depression and despair. Family visits can often be a pressure cooker full of unrealistic expectations and unfinished emotional business that many people start stressing about weeks or months before Thanksgiving. Seeing other peoples’ holiday ‘highlight reel’ on social media can paint a distorted perception that everyone else has the perfect family, and you don’t.”

Common Holiday Blues
While many are sharing their joyous celebrations, there are several people who experience sadness during this time of year. This could be due to previous unhappy holidays, loss of loved ones, and instances where families are separated for the special day.

Thomas W., a local dad, shares, “My brother-in-law committed suicide the day after Christmas. Christmas is never merry or bright, but we try. Later, we adopted two older children, at ages 11 and 13. Both were victims of abuse. Their pasts haunted them. Our Christmas became something to endure, similar to tooth extraction. You know what’s coming, you know it’s going to hurt, so you get it over with, try to heal, and see what happens next year.” Thomas credits his loving wife for the reason he gets through the season.

Joan B. shares that she often experiences unmerriness around the holidays. “I used to dread Christmas as a young adult because it seemed that my dad went extra off the rails every year. Later, as a wife and mom, there was a lot of stress about trying to figure out how to juggle the grandmas. Now they are deceased, and I’ve been consciously building our own family traditions, incorporating spirituality and removing stress as much as possible,” she says.

Whether it’s losing a loved one, a traumatic moment, or even work keeping you away from your family, many moms and dads in our area experience the holiday blues. And for some parents, choosing between paying bills or making sure their children have something to open on Christmas morning also becomes a concern.

What to Look For
As a person who does not struggle with holiday blues, I have another role: to look out for the signs of holiday depression and or anxiety in my friends and loved ones. Morris shares these common signs to look for: isolating or withdrawing from family and friends; avoiding social functions; feelings and expressions of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness or failure; poor hygiene or self-neglect; sleeping too much or too little; eating too much or too little; crying spells; loss of motivation; lack of interest in activities once enjoyed; sighing; avoiding eye contact; negative self-talk or excessive self criticism; irritability; excessive drinking or drug use; thoughts of wanting to die; feeling like a burden to others; and many urges to self harm. 
Local therapist Star Marks adds, “Not putting up a tree or decorating as they normally would. Not dressing up for Christmas pictures or attending the usual social engagements of the holiday season,” as other signs to look for.

How to Help
If you are wanting to help your loved one who may be experiencing the holiday blues, Marks and Morris offer the following tips. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask how someone is doing, trust your instincts.
  2. Don’t pressure the person to change how he or she is feeling, just listen and offer support without judgment.
  3. Ask the person what you can do to help him or her, and follow up regularly.
  4. Offer to visit him or her since a person who is depressed may not have the energy, or want, to attend a party or family function. The person might appreciate a brief visit.
  5. Drop off the person’s favorite food, send him or her a nice note, and remind him or her that you care.
  6. Offer to run errands for them. If you are concerned that they may be suicidal, seek professional assistance.
  7. And most importantly, avoid trite expressions like “This too shall pass” and “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead, try “I can’t imagine how you are feeling, but I’m here for you no matter what.” Marks also suggests, “Start with what we call a ‘soft’ start up like, ‘You seem a little unlike yourself this holiday season. Is something going on? I would love to hear about how you are really doing.’”

The holiday season isn’t happy for everyone. Knowing the signs of what to look for and then offering your support to those who are experiencing the blues could help them return to a place of cheer. ■

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