Coping with the Holiday Blues

The holiday season is Mike Thorne’s favorite time of the year. He and his mother shared many family traditions together. They would decorate a Christmas tree and the rest of their Kalihi home, exchange presents, bake cookies, and invite friends and neighbors for eggnog and dessert.

But ever since Thorne’s mother died two years ago, the holidays have become bittersweet. “I’m not sure if I’m coping all that well,” he said. “The holidays come and go. They’re not the same.”

Thorne flew to his hometown of Boston during Thanksgiving. He took comfort enjoying the holidays with family and continuing some of his mother’s traditions. “Mom really used to direct everything. If I don't do it, our traditions could be forgotten,” he said.

Beating the blues
Although the holidays are meant to be a joyful time, it can cause the “holiday blues” – feelings of melancholy from the loss of loved ones or unhappy memories of the past. Also, the pressure to buy gifts, host parties, and attend holiday events can cause stress that affects your emotional and physical health.  And for some, not being around loved ones during the holidays can cause feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“Make a conscious effort to be with positive people and do activities that make you feel good,” said psychiatrist David Thompson, medical director for Beacon Health Strategies Hawaii.

Thompson said it’s good to uphold traditions, but don’t feel compelled to do them every holiday if it causes stress. After all, people and situations change. Things you enjoyed in the past may not be relevant today. And since not everyone has a “Norman Rockwell” setting, family gatherings can trigger unresolved issues and resentment.

“Resentment is an emotional cancer,” he said.  “It can affect your physical health with irritability, anger issues, and difficulty thinking. The greatest gift one can give during the holidays is the gift of forgiveness.”

Here are some tips to beat the holiday blues:

Refocus your expectations. Don’t feel pressured to find that perfect gift, cook a perfect meal, or make everyone happy. Focus on the important things about the holidays – spending quality time with family and friends and enjoying each other’s company.

Plan ahead. Expect long lines, more traffic, and less available parking spaces at the mall. Go early or later in the day during nonpeak hours to avoid the holiday rush.

Take time to care for yourself. “It’s not selfish,” Thompson said. “It’s the best gift you can do for yourself during the holidays.”

Stick to your normal routines.  Don’t stop your usual healthy habits like eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. “Aerobic activities are not just for weight loss. They’re also good for reenergizing the brain,” Thompson said.

Seek strong connections. “Humans are social animals. We don’t tend to do well on our own. Isolation can worsen stress reactions,” he said. You don’t always have to spend time with family members. Your social network could include a neighbor or friend.

And if the holidays become too overwhelming to cope with, seek professional counseling.

“Feelings are like a wave,” he said. “You can’t stop them from coming. But you can certainly change how you deal with them.”