Tis the season… season for joy, family celebrations, togetherness, and connection. When the holidays roll around, we are expected to feel positive and excited for what is to come. But what if the winter holiday season, and other holidays throughout the year, are actually marked by sadness, pain, anger, anxiety, and disappointment?
The Holiday Blues
The “holiday blues” are often an unseen, unrecognized suffering that many people are going through during the holiday season, many more than we could ever expect. This is a feeling of sadness or dread during holidays, rather than the joy and eagerness we might expect. The holiday blues can look different for each person, all suffering equally
valid and needing of support. To bring up feelings of pain and negativity at such a time is often considered taboo and downright inappropriate. This leaves many people feeling invalidated, alone, and anxious for the forced interactions and smiles that are sure to come.
So, what can lead to the holiday blues? Most often, as a therapist, I hear this mentioned when considering the death of a loved one. This could be a parent, child, sibling, friend, pet, or other important figures in people’s lives. The holidays are a crude reminder of their absence, and thus trigger a sense of sadness over excitement. Their death might also trigger a loss of family togetherness or traditions, creating an even deeper void. Often times we might also experience a decrease in joy around the holidays due to distant relationships, whether that is physically or emotionally. Perhaps your loved ones live far away and you do not have the means to visit or visiting simply is not an option, such as with military deployment. Maybe it is that your family is in conflict or are simply not close anymore, leaving you longing for their presence accompanied by intense apprehension. For some it might be a recent divorce, leading to the absence of your children for the first time at Christmas.
For others, the holiday blues are brought on by the impending doom of feeling the financial strain that comes with obligations of holiday gifts, events, and celebrations, leaving you even more financially hindered than you were before. You may also feel disappointed that you cannot give your family all that they desire or that you cannot keep up with the ‘Jones’ doing every little activity offered and decorating to the 9’s, leaving you feeling like a failure and utterly exhausted.
Possibly, the holiday blues are just a sense that with the holidays comes a period of forfeiting all of who you are, giving up your needs and wants for the sake of others, leaving you paralyzed in discomfort, dread, feeling unheard, and feeling alone. We are often encouraged to give without expectations during the holidays, leading to the violation of personal boundaries, ignoring our wisdom and intuition, and complete
personal depletion. We may feel forced to “get along” for the sake of everyone else, choking down our feelings and hurts. This disingenuous interaction sucks all joy from what used to be your favorite time of the year. Maybe you simply do not enjoy the holidays and feel intense pressure to perform and show excitement, leaving you feeling like there is something wrong with you or that you are not good enough.
For some, the thought of the holidays elicits stress as we think about how we are going to balance it all, including work, school, time off, travel, celebrations, financial concerns, and the list goes on. We all have different interactions with the holidays throughout our lives, some with fond memories of childhood and family celebrations, while others are reminded of pain and disappointment inevitable during the holiday season. Whatever the reason for the holiday blues might be, it is crucial that we recognize and acknowledge that the holidays are not a time of universal joy and elation, but rather a complex reflection of our lived experiences and emotions, leading to a wide array of holiday experiences, expectations, and feelings.
Is this Me or Someone I Love?
How do we know if we or someone we love are experiencing the holiday blues? This can feel very different for each person. For many, it is feelings of deep sadness, despair, loneliness, confusion, or emptiness. These can be accompanied by anger, envy for others’ joy and presence of their loved ones, or feeling gypped. Perhaps others may express dread, anxiety, and stress about all that is to come. With the loss of being heard for some also comes a feeling of being unimportant, marginalized, and invalidated. You may have a lack of desire or motivation to celebrate the holidays, or you can only seem to focus on the negative that surrounds you. The holiday blues may last for one season or for others it can last a lifetime. We may have come to expect that the holidays are always a time of high hopes but also even higher let downs, resulting in pressure and subsequent disappointment and failure. We often keep these feelings tucked inside during the holiday season out of fear, embarrassment, shame, guilt, rejection, or in an attempt to not burden those around us.
This year, with a global pandemic serving as an undesired backdrop, these constraints to holiday joy and hurtful emotions during the holiday season are even more exacerbated for many. After long periods of social isolation, many had hoped that the holiday season would bring a renewed sense of connection and an ability to be physically present with our loved ones once again. As the fall months unfold, this is not the case. So, are we just supposed to accept the misery and push forward with a forced smile? Absolutely not!
Tools to Help
Despite the feeling of despair that comes with the holiday blues, there are many tools to help. Let’s start with things you can do to help your own holiday blues:
· Human connection! Spending time with loved ones, including close friends, even if through virtual means to avoid isolation.
· Surrounding yourself with joy, laughter, and genuine support.
· Look at pictures and videos, even on your phone, when we cannot see our loved ones in person.
· Consider what is best for you: practice old holiday traditions to remember past good time (i.e. Christmas markets, ice skating, movies, midnight Mass, baking, time in the snow, etc), create all new traditions to start a new path to holiday joy, or mix it up in whichever way truly feels best for you.
· Intentionally focusing on and looking forward to what a holiday can feel like: hope, laughter, and selfless love.
· Turn to the support of Christ or your deity.
· Cry – genuinely feel, accept, and express all of your emotions, no matter if they fit within the expectations of what we “should” feel for the holidays.
· Calling those we miss or listening to recordings of their voice.
· Adjust expectations and plans with an open heart and acceptance in light of the pandemic. Disappointment comes when we expect something that cannot or did not happen, so take those expectations off the table.
· Minimize plans to only those that are truly enjoyable, not those created out of obligation. “My kids won’t remember the perfect house decorations or all of the millions of activities, but they will remember my crappy, stressed out energy.”
· Set boundaries! Only you can choose to prioritize and protect your happiness and mental health.
· Decorate the tree, set the table, connect with friends, etc, even if you cry through it all.
· Hold or observe touchstones and keepsakes.
· Philanthropy – focus on giving to others who are also struggling during the holidays.
· Intentionality with time – be intentional with setting aside time for yourself to grieve, heal, process, feel and celebrate in whichever ways are most authentic to you.
· Create separate time to celebrate with just your little family, separate from big group celebrations.
· Protect YOUR special time. Own it and do not let it go. Do not let it be ruined by negativity around you.
· Maintain boundaries and intuition, despite guilt trips and pressure.
· Journal: What would my perfect holiday season look like? What are my values and how do I live those out during the holiday season? Follow your own words and do what is best for you!
· Balance selflessness with boundaries/selfishness.
· Rituals of remembrance, such as lighting a special candle for someone you love who could not celebrate with you this year.
· Radical self-care – do what feels good to you every day, to the point of feeling ridiculous.
In addition to suggesting these tools to our loved ones, we can also:
· Again, human connection! If someone is lonely, reach out and remind them frequently that they are indeed not alone.
· Send a small gift, such as a mini decorated tree for a relative that cannot put one up themselves.
· Send a meaningful gift or ornament with a recording or picture every year to your physically distant loved ones - “The ornament traveled when we couldn’t.”
· Invite our loved one to share their genuine experiencing, holding space for them to be angry, sad, or whatever they might feel.
· Send meaningful gifts, gifts that will mean something to the other person, not just ourselves.
· Encourage your loved one to try to start small, with small joyful things, to begin to move into the holiday season with control and even some joy.
· Encourage them to seek additional support, perhaps through therapy. Maybe even offer to go with them to the first appointment.
These tools are often a starting point for what is a journey to healing. You do not have to take this journey alone. As a marriage and family therapist with Safe Haven Family Therapy, LLC, I offer support to individuals, couples, and families struggling with a wide variety of concerns, including the holiday blues. I provide this support virtually, making it convenient and easy for you and your loved ones to get the support you deserve. If you have further questions about mental health, how to improve the holiday blues, or the supportive resources available to you, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I can be reached at (970) 460-8015 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to connect you with exactly what you uniquely need, even if it isn’t with me. No one deserves to live in suffering, not even for one day or one holiday season!