Though the holiday season is portrayed as an uplifting time to spend with family, exchange gifts and be festive, some struggle emotionally, often slipping into the “holiday blues.”
The root of feeling down can vary person to person.
“I think it firstly has to do with what their background is, what their history is during that time,” Helen Lyle-Joiner, licensed professional counselor and mental health service provider in Lenoir City, said. “Sometimes it’s just due to all the hype that goes on and what you see on television and how these perfect families exist. That can make someone feel somewhat melancholy about the holidays. I work with a lot of traumatized children, and some adults for that matter, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that during the holidays, they’ve experienced a lot of bad things.
“We think of the holidays if we’ve not been through anything, as kind of happy, joyous, exciting times,” she added. “But for them, it’s when dad drank too much. Everybody was stressed together, worried about if they’re going to be able to get their kid something or are they going to be able to pay the electric bill since we’re all home now.”
Expectations that accompany the season can also cause people to get off-track on spending or health goals, which can lead to negative effects, Dr. Parinda Khatri, Cherokee Health Systems chief clinical officer, said.
“I think there are a number of reasons why holiday blues and holiday stress is something that I think a lot of people struggle with,” Khatri said. “No. 1, I think expectations are pretty high. It is marketed and seen as a time of happiness and joy and being with family and friends, and certainly if you look at portrayals in the media, everything is happy and joyous. There are just a lot of stressors that happen. People end up doing too many things. They can commit to a lot of different activities. Usually people spend too much money, and that’s a financial stress. They also will also give up regular health behavior. People feel like, ‘OK, I can eat more because it’s the holidays,’ and there’s all this great food that tempts them. People will drink heavily or drink more than they typically do during the holidays.’
The down emotions may not stem from holiday celebrations. Small details can trigger negative thoughts and feelings, Lyle-Joiner said.
“I’ve got kids where simple things will trigger their trauma around the holidays,” she said. “They all struggle normally. Seeing things like seeing their sister do something like with the Christmas tree, even if it’s just putting on an ornament, it can trigger a thought. Just small things — smells, people that remind kids of people who have harmed them — all kinds of things can trigger memories back in that time, so then you have an increase of behavioral issues and depression and anxiety at that point in time.”
Even spending time with family can be difficult.
“This is a time where the family dynamics can be particularly stressful,” Khatri said. “There are times where people really spend more time than usual with certain family members, and no one gets along all the time. There can be conflict that emerges. At the same time, it’s a time where people can feel more lonely than ever. Particularly if there’s been a death or a loss of a person, the first holiday or Christmas without that person in your family is really tough”
Recognizing emotions and talking about it with someone can help.
“I think also be kind to themselves,” Lyle-Joiner said. “Recognize that this is what’s happening and be kind to themselves. Don’t participate in things that cause them harm as far as memories if it’s too much to please someone else. It’s OK to set boundaries with people and take care of ourselves. Don’t stuff it in. Talk to somebody. Say, ‘I’m struggling with this. These are the feelings. I can’t explain them to you, but this is how I feel.’ Just getting that relief and that support and being able to share some of those emotions can help give them some of that relief.”
Setting realistic goals is a way to possibly feel better.
“I think it’s really important to have realistic expectations for everything — for what you can do, for what kind of activities can you engage in, how much money can you spend versus how much you want to spend. I think that moderation and eating and alcohol and other kind of unhealthy behaviors is important,” Khatri said. “You can certainly treat yourself, but it’s not a license to indulge. People can end up just feeling awful. I also feel like it’s important to do the things that help you cope with stress and help you take care of yourself, taking time for yourself. If you like to exercise or you like to do crafts, your body and mind need that rejuvenation more than ever, and particularly when you’re around a lot of people and the stress around holiday shopping, even just 15 minutes a day can help you cope.”
The blues often linger after Christmas, but if the down feeling doesn’t subside, seeking professional help should be a priority.
“If you’re feeling bad every day, if you’re having a hard time with your functioning, whether in your relationships or work, if you’re not able to enjoy anything and it continues for more than two weeks, like most of the day, every day for two weeks or more, then that is not holiday blues,” Khatri said. “That is really indicative of a more serious depression or anxiety condition.”