Surviving the Holidays

"It's the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle-belling

And everyone telling you be of good cheer
It's the most wonderful time of the year"
-Andy Williams, performer, arch-villain to those suffering from holiday blues

Ah, Christmas. That time of year where it finally gets a little bit colder (at least in the south, that is) and everyone is excited about spending time with their loved ones. Not everyone is excited about the holidays though. In fact, it's pretty common that people tend to experience heightened stress, anxiety, and depression around this time. And how couldn't they? It's an expensive time - fiscally, emotionally and cognitively. It's such a powerful force that it currently qualifies as a specifier to Major Depressive Disorder.

So in order to combat the potential incoming waves of holiday blues, I figured I'd offer some tips on how to make the season a little more manageable:

  1. Acknowledge your emotions. You're not happy, and that's OK. You can try to fake it 'til you make it, but just know that you don't have to. Our emotions are such a useful tool. Don't shut them out. Put them to use.
  2. Keep your expectations in check. Once Black Friday hits, we tend to get an overwhelming wave of what the holidays are "supposed" to look like, from television and internet ads to social media posts. While there's no initial harm to buy into the spirit of the season, the expectations can build up and, soon enough, you'll find yourself with too many presents, plans and pressure. So be honest with where you're at during this point in you or your family's life. Do you feel overwhelmed with the constant juggling of obligations that have been bestowed upon you? What's essential? If you can, write a list of all the things to do and the "obligations" you have to take part in. Sometimes it's helpful to have a list so that we're at least no longer juggling in our heads the many things left to complete. If you see a list that's simply too long to accomplish, take a moment to scratch out 50% of what's on it. Maybe it would do some good to dial back the pressure a bit on making 2016 the "best Christmas yet" in efforts to salvage your sanity. On the other end, if your list is too small, then reach out to your community - neighbors, co-workers, old friends, distant family members. You never know what may come from a simple inquiry. If you suffer from social anxiety, try to stick to 1-2 events to prevent from being incredibly stressed out about each one. 
  3.  Check in with yourself. What kind of year has it been? Stressful? A busy one? Any major life events? Loss of a loved one or tension in the family? When there's a death in the family, this time of year can be incredibly difficult. It brings back old memories and potential "unfinished business," not to mention the adjustment of traditions without that person. What are your wants and needs around this time of year? Take a piece of paper and, for each season of 2016 (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter), write a thought, emotion, and major event that best captures what was going on with you around that time. This helps to provide a chronological perspective to what our minds, bodies and hearts have endured so we can more appropriately consider what we may need these next few weeks.
  4. Avoid grievances/tense discussions during holiday events. Politics/religion is a no-brainer, especially around this time where such a polarizing presidential election just took place. If you have a particular problem with a family member or friend, try to sort it out before the event. Don't let that tension cast a cloud over a get-together. Holidays can also provide great moments for forgiveness and repair, but only if you're ready to.
  5. Switch it up. Nothing wrong with trying out some new traditions to break up the monotony. Ask around your family and friends and see if you can get some help with it.
  6. Volunteer. Take part in something bigger than yourself. It can be a soup kitchen or a shelter, but you can be creative and come up with other ways to give your care to noble causes.
  7. Avoid alcohol and unprescribed drugs/medication. The answers to your seasonal depression aren't going to be found at the bottom of a bottle. Alcohol is a depressant. Though it may numb the pain for now, it's a temporary fix and has the potential to amplify the problems you are facing. Mind-altering substances also take away the many opportunities for you to experiment with new solutions you may have not thought of or have had the confidence or capacity to try.
  8. Notable holiday life-hacks.
    • Can't stand the invasive Paul McCartney bragging to you about how he's simply having a "wonderful Christmas time" at every department store and coffee shop you goto? Keep some spare headphones on you at all times and don't put up with it, and for the love of God stay away from Magic 101.9. 
    • Shopping online can potentially save you lots of time and money, which can greatly reduce stress. 
    • Under significant financial burden? Take a year off gifts-giving. If they're your loved ones, then they should understand.
    • Worried about what to get? Still haven't met one person that's turned down a gift card. 
    • Is it your turn to host Christmas dinner and you're simply too boggled down with the holiday blues? Call your family members and switch out for another obligation in the near future, explaining that you're currently going through a lot right now.
    • Too overwhelmed with social media? Take a break from your Twitter / Facebook / Snapchat until 2017. It'l all be there when you get back, and you're not missing more than people standing by Christmas trees, people standing by fireworks, and lots of cats doing mostly nothing. I know plenty of people who don't use social media at all anymore, and they seem to hold up just fine.
  9. See a therapist.  Sometimes depression can be too big for us to handle ourselves. Just know that there's no shame in starting therapy or picking up right where you left off during this time. 

One final anecdote - Since 1966, there's a Christmas tradition in Gävle, Sweden where, at the beginning of Advent, the community erects a giant version of a Swedish Yule Goat made of straw. Since its inception, the structure has become famous for being destroyed in arson attacks. Yes, you read that right. Arson. I'm not making this up. One year there were three unsuccessful attempts at the goat, so someone knocked it over with a car. Despite increased security efforts over the past few decades, the goat has been burned down or damaged a total of 36 times. There's a detailed timeline and documentation for each attempt of vandalism on the structure found here. Now, I'm obviously not sharing this to inspire the reader to start committing arson or acts of destruction in protest of the holidays, for that is dangerous, illegal, and wrong! However, I would like to point out the underlying truth in all of this to anyone who may be lacking the holiday spirit around this time of year...

You're not alone.

You're not alone.

Have a happy holidays, take care of yourself, and see you in 2017!