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The Holiday Blues

While holidays represent wonderful times, they can also be a time of high stress and exhaustion. Too many activities, not enough time, financial demands, and family pressures can overload anyone’s circuits. For many, Christmas is not a time of joy and cheer, but of depression, loneliness, anxiety, and self-doubt.

These days of personal crisis, unemployment, and overwhelm- ing debt have already caused a fair amount of ongoing stress in all of our lives. The upcoming holiday season may strain even the most resilient; it is critical to maintain physical and emotional health during the next weeks and months.

Doyou find yourself facing the holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving and ending after New Year’s Day, with a sense of delight and anticipation or of negativity and dread? You are not alone if you feel increasingly irritable as the season unfolds. Holiday depression is common and can be attributed to four main factors: unrealistic expectations, over burdened schedules, social and family conflicts, and unhealthy lifestyle.

Unrealistic Expectations
The biggest stress is expectations, those that others have of us and those we impose upon ourselves. We focus on choosing the perfect gift, re-connecting with friends and family, and pro- viding loving, cherished memories for our children. Women who work now were raised by women who stayed at home and try to reproduce an “old-fashioned” Christmas like they remember for their children. This is an enormous amount of work, setting us up for disappointment and despair. Expecta- tions of how the holidays “should be” keep us from enjoying simple, more meaningful ways to celebrate.

Overburdened Schedules and Finances
Women feel the most pressure to plan, shop, cook, decorate, and coordinate family    events. We try to do too much, for too many people, in too little time. This can lead to exhaustion, sleeplessness, poor appetite and irritability. The added ex- penses of gifts, travel, and entertainment can strain any budget, causing personal and marital distress.

Social and Family Conflicts
Unresolved family problems and relationships can surface during times of stress. Tensions are often heightened during the holidays. The same sister who was obnoxious and self-centered at the Christmas dinner last year will still be the same person this season. Understanding this before you attend the family function can make a big difference in how you approach her and can help you separate from her behaviors. People with few friends or family may feel more alone and isolated. Those with large families feel stressed by having to choose which families to visit. Single adults can feel especially lonely as they compare themselves to those who are married with children.

Unhealthy Lifestyle
The physical demands of the holidays can lead to a vicious cycle of stress including: lack of sleep, increased    sugar and fat in our diet, lack of regular exercise, and a lowered immune system. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) can play havoc with our well being as our bodies have difficulty ad- justing to decreased light. While holiday stress is short lived and lasts only a few weeks, SAD can last for several months. Those who have experienced depression or anxiety in the past may be especially vulnerable and should be careful to preserve a healthy lifestyle.

Take Control of the Holidays
Don’t let the holidays become something you dread! In- stead, take steps to prevent stress and enjoy a happier holiday season.

Tips To Prevent Holiday Stress

  • Acknowledge your emotions. It’s okay to feel sadness and grief. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holidays
  • Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect. Families needs change and grow over time. Don’t expect a “magical” holiday.
  • Plan ahead. Schedule obligations wisely. Use a calendar to prioritize activities.
  • Pace yourself. Recognize your limitations. •    Anticipate crisis. Unplanned situations are likely to occur.
  • Be mindful of diet. Allow indulgences with limitations. Don’t skip those workouts at the gym.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Put family issues aside. This is not the time to “fix” anything that’s broken.
  •  Set and stick to a reasonable budget.
  • Reach out. Seek community, religious, or social events to offer support to others.
  • Learn to say no. Friends and family will understand if you can’t participate in every activity.
  • Take time for yourself. Spend time alone, take a walk, listen to music. Restore your inner calm.
  • Young children need quiet time. They can feel the effects of stress, too.
  • Find the humor in the craziness of the season. Therapists know that humor maintains a positive outlook, is a stress reducer, and can help you “reframe” any situation.
  • Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may still overcome by symptoms of stress and depression, and therapy or medication may be useful.

Signs You May Have the Holiday Blues

  1. You have no interest in the usual plans and activities of the holiday season
  2. You feel sad and irritable most of the time
  3. You have changes in weight or appetite and are bingeinG on holiday treats
  4. You have difficulty falling or staying asleep
  5.  You have difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
  6. You experience fatigue or loss of energy
  7. You feel hopeless or worthless
  8. You feel tearful or blue every day
  9. You feel irritable and argumentative
  10.  You are drinking alcohol more frequently and use alcohol to feel “numb”
  11. You avoid planning or attending holiday events
  12. You procrastinate about shopping
  13. You wonder what the point is of decorating this year
  14. You can’t wait for the holiday season to be over
  15. You have negative thoughts and are unable to see the positive
  16. You can’t stop worrying about what might go wrong

If you have scored positively to 8 or more of these signs, you may be experiencing holiday depression rather than stress. This checklist cannot replace the assessment of a qualified mental health clinician. Call your physician or insurance company to receive a referral for an assessment or treatment.
Margaret Thompson, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the founder of The Salt Lake Marital and Family Therapy Clinic. With over thirty years experience as a marriage and family therapist specializing in relational therapy, her areas of expertise include relationship problems, interpersonal conflicts, and managing life transitions.

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