The holiday season is touted by society as the most wonderful time of the year. Cheerful music, cheesy movies and bright decorations abound as soon as Halloween passes. However, for many Americans, the holiday season is one to dread. Along with tidings of comfort and joy, the holidays bring the pressures of large family gatherings, parties among friends, an abundance of unhealthy foods and obligations to spend money on gifts. Coupled with the colder, darker weather, the onset of the holiday season can leave many feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed. Despite the crushing expectations to have fun and enjoy the merriment of the holidays, it is possible to survive the season with your sanity intact.
There are a multitude of reasons why the holiday season is difficult for many. Some individuals and families find the holidays highlight the absence of loved ones they have lost, whether through death or some other means. An empty chair at a dinner table — a concrete reminder of a missing person — may be easier to look past at other times of the year. Moreover, holiday family gatherings can bring back painful memories of a departed person and times shared during happier seasons. To cope with the grief that accompanies the holidays, it is important to first consciously acknowledge that the season will be emotionally difficult. Grief is often a taboo subject, especially during the holidays. However, Rachel Thomas, president of OptionB, an organization that provides resources to those facing grief or other adversity, says social support can make all the difference to a grieving person. In order to best support someone in your life who is grieving, be sure to provide open invitations to holiday festivities, but do not pressure them into attendance if they seem unwilling. If you are able, gifting a donation in memory of the lost loved one may be a welcome gesture that provides comfort during a difficult season.
Beyond grief, individuals with active eating disorders or those in recovery often experience an increase in their symptoms during the holiday season. As most of the major holidays — especially in the United States — center around food, people who struggle with anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating or other related disorders may feel a profound sense of panic. The prospect of eating under the watchful eyes of large groups of friends and family in social situations can cause many to fall further into patterns of disordered eating. Many people with anorexia in particular often do not know what a normal amount of food is for them and fear eating any amount will cause immediate weight gain. This fear is then compounded by the feeling that everyone nearby is watching and intensely judging the amount of food they are eating. When bulimia, the cycle of binge-eating and purging, is involved, the abundance of food may present feelings of excitement and immense shame, as well as self-hatred and fear over the prospect of their loved ones finding out about their struggles. The family and friends of someone struggling with disordered eating can provide support by refraining from commenting on their loved one’s food or their own eating habits during the holiday season. It can also be helpful to make time for holiday activities that do not focus on food, such as watching movies or singing carols. Most importantly, patience and kindness are integral to helping a loved one cope with their eating disorder throughout the holiday season.
Anxiety and depression are often prevalent during the holidays as well. The demands of cooking, gift-buying, cleaning, throwing or attending parties and the overall pressure to “perform happiness” can be isolating. Furthermore, the looming new year can present feelings of inadequacy over lack of achievements of goals set at the start of the year. For many others, attending holiday parties full of coworkers, friends or family members presents crippling social anxiety and may increase feelings of isolation in those with depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, de-stressing and handling holiday-related depression can involve simple acts, such as avoiding the obligation to say yes to all holiday-related gatherings you may be invited to, avoiding excessive use of alcohol or drugs and maintaining healthy habits through eating and other forms of self-care.
The holiday season may be difficult even for individuals without diagnosed mental illnesses. Those with jobs in retail often find what is supposed to be a joyful time dampened by managing customers on their worst behavior. Others may find that the repetition of the same songs, movies and traditions grates on their sanity. If you find yourself among these groups, understand that such feelings are common. Northwestern Memorial Hospital psychiatrist Michael Ziffra, M.D. emphasizes the importance of skipping holiday activities that you do not enjoy. Alternatives include buying gifts online if you cannot stand crowded shopping malls. Because the holidays are often hectic and disruptive, it is important to stay as close to your normal schedule as possible to maintain some sort of normalcy, says Ziffra. Clinical psychologist John E. Mayer recommends setting aside a part of your holiday budget to buy yourself something you have wanted for some time as a means to ease the holiday blues. If you still find yourself struggling, reach out to a trusted loved one to confide your difficulties. The same goes for if you notice someone close to you seems to be having a hard time. Getting through the busy holiday season can seem impossible, but there are ways to manage the abundance of emotions that often surface around the end of the calendar year.
Alanna Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.