This time of year can be filled with joy, family gatherings, and holiday excitement, and can also be challenging for many people for a variety of very valid reasons. As days grow shorter and winter holidays approach, we can be affected by a perfect storm of stress and depression that can leave some of us feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or worse. It is normal to feel somewhat down; there is even the term “winter blues” to describe the general unhappiness that can start in the mid-late autumn or even after the excitement of the holidays has passed and the long months of winter stretch ahead.
With the run-up to the winter holidays, preparations, shopping, and parties can disrupt our patterns of sleep and nutrition as we stretch ourselves thin to meet extra obligations. Movies, advertising, and music constantly show us an image of how winter, family, and holidays should look that don’t necessarily mirror real life. The loss of loved ones may feel sharper now as well; whether it is the first season without them or many have gone by doesn’t really matter – the grief is real and valid. Wanting to experience or create the “perfect” holiday for yourself and your family and friends can result in unhealthy levels of stress. The COVID-19 pandemic made the holidays especially hard for many people and the challenges of that period may be slow to go away.
So how do we manage our mental wellbeing during what can be for some the most difficult time of the year? Some strategies that help us during this time of year are helpful tips all the time. Try to maintain your normal routines as much as possible. Make sure to get adequate sleep, and watch out for urges to oversleep or unusual feelings of tiredness that may indicate a more serious level of depression. With all the extra special holiday treats and sweets, it is easy to replace healthy food with too many baked goods: remember to still eat a balanced diet including vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Try small portions of the most tempting items and replace some other sweets with fruit.
Short days mean we have to be extra diligent to get the adequate exercise, fresh air, and sunlight that can be so important to our mental health. If you are indoors during all the daylight hours, try to take a break during the day to go outside, be near a large window, open window coverings to get as much sunlight inside as possible, and take walks in parks and natural areas. Consider changing light bulbs to “daylight” in some rooms. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a more serious form of depression that can be triggered by the shorter days of fall and winter, lasts several months, and may only go away once regular sunlight returns. Signs of SAD include feelings of hopelessness, appetite changes, oversleeping, irritability, sluggishness, and withdrawing from activities and friends. Talk to a mental health provider if symptoms last longer than a few weeks or are interfering with normal life.
There are additional ways to address stressors specific to the holidays.
· Especially important is to manage expectations – be realistic about what you will be able to do and what to expect of others. It is not necessary – nor even possible – to be perfect or make everyone happy.
· Don’t be afraid to say no – from attending or hosting gatherings, putting up extra decorations, or cooking for more people to engaging in uncomfortable conversations or with toxic people, you are allowed to identify and avoid the things that will cause you distress.
· Do not ignore grief – it is easy to think we need to be constantly in the “holiday spirit” but if you are missing people or traditions that are gone, acknowledge that. Honor and celebrate loved ones by sharing happy memories, make a space for them at a holiday table, donate in their memory, or take the lead in a tradition they used to enjoy.
· Make and stick to a budget – holidays can be a time when people feel compelled to spend more than they can really afford, so you might suggest to family and friends that you all stick to a spending limit or consider alternatives such as crafting, making an affordable donation in someone’s name, or get together to do something without exchanging gifts.
Boundaries are hard to set and stick to, but they could be the difference between protecting your mental health during the holidays or suffering from stress, anxiety, and/or depression. It’s important to communicate your limits ahead of time to your loved ones and what you will need to do if your boundaries are stretched. Also be aware that you may be the one who pushes your own boundaries so check in with yourself. Pay attention to when you may be overextended, overtired, or overwhelmed and take a break, whether that is a 15 minute walk in the sunshine to reset or saying no to attending another holiday party or shopping trip. When it comes to spending time or money, decide which things are most important and how you want to feel when the holidays are over.
Ultimately, you are responsible for your own health and well-being and the people who love you will want you to be mentally and physically present for a long time. If that means backing off a little bit from some expectations, it also may mean you have more to give later. It is also important to realize that if you continue taking steps to protect yourself and still feel overwhelmed or depressed, support is available.
CALL Colorado Crisis Services at 844-493-TALK (8255), TEXT TALK to 38255, ONLINE at www.coloradocrisisservices.org
The national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number is 988.
Calling, texting, or chatting 988 from any cellphone will connect you to the closest crisis center based on where your area code originates; this may mean that the crisis counselor is not local to where you are currently.