Samantha Gattsek’s family has never made a big deal out of holiday celebrations. But this year, she feels especially disconnected from the seasonal cheer surrounding her. “The holidays can feel like a lonely time of year, and it’s hard to hear about everyone else’s fun plans,” the 29-year-old New York City resident says. “I don’t have that warm and fuzzy feeling.”
Gattsek can’t afford the $700 plane ticket to visit her boyfriend in Atlanta. Plus, she has to work on Christmas Eve. With nothing much to look forward to, she’s suffered from low energy since Thanksgiving and has a bad case of the holiday blues.
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Why It’s Easy to Hate the Holidays
The holidays are supposed to be the happiest time of the year, yet for many, they trigger deep feelings of sadness and anxiety. “There’s so much emphasis on family and celebration, but it’s hard if you’re dealing with difficult memories or reminders that you’re not close to your family,” says Sharon Melnick, PhD, stress resilience expert and author of Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident and Productive When the Pressure’s On. “It can feel like there’s a big gap between what other people are experiencing and what you’re experiencing.”
“Hibernation and isolation can feed a depressed mood. Surround yourself with friends.”
Add the financial pressure of gift-giving, cold weather and lack of sunlight, and those are prime conditions for a world-class funk. But unlike seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is estimated to affect 10 to 20 percent of Americans, it’s unknown how many people suffer from the holiday blahs.
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“It’s important not to classify all winter doldrums as SAD,” explains Sarah Eckfeldt, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. “Many people experience a drop in mood in anticipation of the holidays because they might be sad over a recent breakup or spending the first holiday after the death of a loved one and could benefit from talking to a therapist.”
The good news: Seasonal doldrums tend to fade once the festivities are over (and if they don’t, consider seeking professional help). In the meantime, here are some tips to help you improve your mood over the next two weeks.
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How to Beat the Holiday Blues
1. Seek Social Support
Meghan Day was seized with sadness earlier this month after decorating her Christmas tree alone. The activity was intended to make her feel better about creating her own holiday traditions; she had separated from her husband a year earlier.
“It all feels really strange and new. It’s hard not to get in a down place about being alone this time of year,” she says. Since the start of the holiday season, she’s struggled to get out of bed in the morning and hasn’t felt like going out after work.
When the blues strike, who wouldn’t rather hide out at home in yoga pants? Make yourself go out anyway, Eckfeldt advises. “Hibernation and isolation can feed a depressed mood,” she says. “Surround yourself with friends, even if you don’t feel like it. Not only are you distracting yourself from your possibly blue thoughts, but being out with others provides you with opportunities for pleasure and joy.”
Feeling wary about making small talk? You can skip those parties, she says. Instead, make plans with small groups of friends. Just having a few events on her calendar to look forward to has helped Day feel more connected to those around her. “It’s been good to share how I’m feeling with someone other than my therapist,” she says.
She’s also taken the opportunity to explore new things to do that don’t involve pricey dinners or drinks. “Staying out late drinking is exhausting, and not good for my health. It tends to bring me down more than make me feel better,” she says. On her calendar this month: A Broadway play and a Knicks game.
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2. Get to the Gym
When Gattsek’s holiday blues set in, she found herself skipping workouts with her running group. But foregoing fitness only deprives you of the exercised-induced endorphins that might help boost your mood. The challenge is getting yourself there when you least feel like it.
“You can’t compare yourself to others’ highlight reels of their lives.”
“Resist any excuse not to go,” says Eckfeldt. “Or make a bargain with yourself that you only have to exercise for 10 minutes. Your heart rate will start to rise, and most likely you’ll stick it out longer because you’re already there.” Better yet, plan a workout with a friend so you’re less likely to flake out. Day gravitates to group fitness classes with high-energy music to keep her spirits up. And on days when Gattsek doesn’t want to run, she’s been opting for spinning class at her gym or trying out new yoga studios in her neighborhood.
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3. Don’t Look at Facebook
Even though you know that most people only post their happiest moments on social media, it’s easy to lose perspective and get a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out). “You can’t compare yourself to others’ highlight reels of their lives,” says Melnick, who advocates that less Instagram is more when you’re in the dumps. Gattsek believes limiting her consumption of Facebook is helpful during the holidays. “The second I read something that makes me feel jealous, I shut it off,” she says.
Reach out to your close friends via phone or text message when you feel like connecting with people. You’ll get more satisfaction hearing updates from people you actually like, rather than tons of people you haven’t seen in years.
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4. Reframe Your Thinking
If you feel isolated, it’s important to remember you’re still in charge of your life. “The way to bring more abundance into your life is to give first,” urges Melnick. “Find opportunities to volunteer. Meet people. Attend events.” Instead of feeling left out of others’ holiday plans, Gattsek says she’s started thinking of the break as free time to do whatever she wants — even if that means spending the day in bed with her cats and Netflix.
“I’m also trying to recognize that it’s a challenging time and that it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and sad,” says Day.
Finally, it helps tell yourself that the holidays are just a season that will soon pass. In the meantime, Gattsek tells herself she just has to make it to New Year’s Eve. “My holiday blues usually last until the stroke of midnight,” she says. “Then I become optimistic about the coming year.”
If you struggle with serious and continuous depressive symptoms, be sure to reach out to a healthcare provider to discuss your condition. For additional information on depression, head to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Original posted December 2014. Updated December 2015.