Forget being jolly. Some years, the holidays feel like more of a burden than a blessing.
While those around you seem to be living out a Hallmark Christmas movie, you’re mired in grief or sadness. And, on top of that, you’re supposed to smile through the office holiday party, find the perfect Secret Santa gift, rack up bills for holiday shopping, and head home to your relatives around the holiday table.
“Part of it is this disconnect between the feeling that you’re supposed to be the happiest ever or super-festive and the belief that sort of everybody is and then you feel totally removed from that,” says psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius.
The good news is that there are some coping mechanisms that can help.
Know You’re Not Alone
Whether you’ve experienced a loss that is weighing on you or you’re simply not feeling all that festive, the holiday blues are common. One study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 44% of women and 31% of men report increased stress during the holidays due to issues such as lack of time and money and pressure to give or get gifts.
Another study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness say that the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day makes their condition “somewhat” or “a lot” worse. The “holiday blues” are often caused by high expectations, loneliness, and stress. Just understanding that you’re not the only person feeling this way can alleviate some of the loneliness you feel, Saltz says.
Give Yourself Permission to Say “No”
You don’t have to attend every holiday party or engage in competitions to buy the biggest or best gifts. It’s okay to be choosy about the holiday madness in which you participate, says psychologist and coach Ashley B. Hampton. And you can also ease yourself into obligations. Let’s say you’re expected to go to the office holiday party. You might put parameters on how long you’ll stay—plan to go for 30 minutes, then see how you’re feeling, for example.
At the same time, when you’re feeling blue, sometimes it’s tempting to isolate yourself, when the best thing for you might be to get out and have a little fun, she says. “If it’s something they think they may like, go for it,” she says. But having the option to leave early or not go at all can sometimes shift the situation from an obligation to a choice, which can remove some of the stress.
Find a “Wing Person”
If you’re dealing with another holiday networking luncheon that you must attend, bring a plus-one to run interference for you, Saltz suggests. If you’ve confided in your best friend at work or another trusted colleague, enlist that person as moral support if you need it. They may be able to provide a distraction at an office party or help you find an appropriate excuse to leave when you need to do so.
Make New Traditions
Just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you have to do it again. It’s okay to skip the gift exchange this year or make 10 different kinds of cookies, Saltz says. Scale back your long, holiday-related to-do list. You may even find new traditions. Instead of cooking and hosting a meal for your entire family or friend group, have everyone bring their favorite dish, for example. If other people around you are feeling sad, too, they may welcome the change of pace.
Watch the Drinking
The APA study found that using food and alcohol to cope with stress increased around the holidays, but significantly more women reported using both to manage their feelings. Saltz warns against that. Alcohol is a depressant and may make you feel worse—especially if you overindulge and end up with a hangover.
When you’re feeling sadness or grief, taking care of yourself can help you feel better. Get appropriate rest, eat well, and exercise, she says.
Engage in Some Happy Distractions
What makes you feel good? Whether it’s a classic Bruce Springsteen song or cute animal videos, find your go-to option for a quick smile, Hampton says. Even a few minutes of immersing yourself in something that makes you happy can give your mood a boost.
Find Ways to Give Back
Doing something good for others is a great way to focus on something other than your sadness. And studies have shown that being generous is linked with being happier. “Being able to channel some of yourself in that direction can actually make you feel a lot better besides the fact that you’re making other people feel better,” Saltz says.
Don’t Let It Linger Unchecked
And while the holiday blues are common this time of year, getting help for sadness or grief can also offer some relief. If your feelings are interfering with your ability to function, you’re having trouble concentrating or performing at work, or your feelings are affecting your well-being or relationships, it may be time to consult a mental health professional or physician to help determine the best options to help you.