With Thanksgiving and a tumultuous election season behind us, people are gearing up to spend the December holidays with family and friends. But these seemingly joyous occasions can be fraught with tension and hostility thanks to unmanaged expectations, finances, social media and more.
The holidays stress our emotional health in a lot of ways, especially if you go into them already struggling with self-esteem, self-worth or feeling unloved, said John O’Neill, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director of The Menninger Clinic’s outpatient services.
“It’s a time when you can feel intense happiness or incredible loneliness and despair,” O’Neill added.
Moods can dip
Many of us look forward to the holidays all year—gathering recipes, buying gifts, planning decorations. But as the holidays creep closer, our moods can dip.
“I think sometimes people feel sad as the holidays near and they are not even realizing why,” said Barbi Topek, a licensed clinical social worker at Menninger. “It’s a happy time of year, I’m walking through the stores and everyone is smiling and saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays,’ and you just might not be feeling it and that’s OK. But, you need to take a look and figure out what is going on.”
As the days grow shorter and hours with sunlight decrease, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can put a damper on year-end festivities. SAD is a mood disorder that is often treated with light therapy.
The “holiday blues” occur near the end of the year, as well.
“The holiday blues occur during the holiday months … usually October to January,” said Asim Shah, M.D., professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. “People start feeling fatigue, irritability, lack of interest in activity, they have appetite problems … depressive symptoms.”
Root of holiday stress
Unmet expectations are the root of most holiday stress, O’Neill and Topek said.
“Being reasonable with your expectations is critical. Don’t expect that things are going to go perfect, because they are not,” O’Neill said.
Expectations can be wrapped around multiple issues including family history and family dynamics.
“You think things are just going to be terrific and great and anything from the past will just be forgotten,” Topek said. “Make your expectations realistic. Nothing is going to go 100 percent and you need to let go a little bit.”
Family gatherings have the potential to bring up long-buried feelings.
“For the holidays, I tell patients you will see people you may not see for the rest of the year and it might be a person you don’t necessarily like,” Shah said. “Remember that it is just a short time that you have to see them. Secondly, I tell them to have as much patience as possible, try to be a good listener and maybe take a timeout if someone is stressing you out too much.”
Finances and travel
Gifts can be an additional source of tension.
“Financial stress during the holidays is real and people feeling like they have to keep up with other people. We overextend ourselves,” O’Neill said. “Have some sort of budget that is agreed upon by the couple or partners so you don’t find yourself overspending. … You need to ask yourself: ‘Can I really afford this? Am I going to go into January owing thousands of dollars?’”
The holidays also go hand-in-hand with travel, sometimes long-distance travel if you have loved ones far away.
“A new couple is always trying to figure out, ‘Where are we going for the holidays? Are we going to my parents’ house or yours?’” O’Neill said, “There can be a lot of stress just around organizing what you are going to do.”
In the age of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, individuals are often trying to one-up each other, as well, which can create stress and disappointment.
“Social media, cooking shows and home shows build up expectations for the holidays and it is really important to ask if you can be accepting of yourself,” Topek said. “Thinking that you have to have the perfect meal and the perfect decorations will cause stress.”
Instead, she said, know what you are good at and what you enjoy, and participate in the holidays in ways that will buoy your spirits. Don’t try to do everything.
In terms of conversation, setting some holiday rules can be very helpful for eliminating drama around the table or elsewhere during the season.
“I think there should be some pretty strong rules for what you talk about and what you won’t talk about,” O’Neill said. “There are topics that are off limits. It’s amazing what happens when someone starts talking and you don’t engage.”
Check in with your therapist
Whether the holidays mean facing your critical mother or engaging with a sibling who has teased you since birth, Topek recommends checking in with your therapist ahead of time, if you have one.
“Coming in to see a mental health practitioner or therapist before the holidays, it’s like getting a vaccination before you head into a place that might cause you more turmoil or sickness,” Topek said.
Otherwise, make a plan.
“You have to go into the holidays with a plan,” O’Neill said. “How long are we going to stay there? When do we know it’s time to go?”
And find the time to do the things that lift your spirits during the rest of the year, he added.
“We constantly say, ‘Oh, I don’t have time for that,’” O’Neill said. “But you have to make time. Make time for working out, make time for your romantic relationship, make time for your kids. Find that balance.”
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