Managing Stress and Depression Around the Holidays
The holidays can bring joy, but it’s not uncommon to experience stress, depression and anxiety as well. The demands of the season — shopping and running errands while battling crowds, back-to-back holiday parties and social obligations, houseguests and relatives — are all potential stressors. Alongside this, feelings of loneliness and isolation are also common around the holidays. Seasonal affective disorder increases the likelihood of negative thoughts and, perhaps most significant, your emotional health concerns don’t disappear just because it’s the holidays.
While you may often feel pressure to keep spirits up and a smile on your face during the holidays — pressure that can worsen feelings of loneliness and depression — it’s okay to experience a range of emotions during the season. And, with a few helpful tips, you can be more prepared to tackle what’s in store.
1. Keep Your Healthy Habits
Maintaining healthy habits during the holiday season will be one of your best defenses against stress. This means getting enough sleep, eating well — even at holiday parties — and staying physically active.
It also means maintaining what you can of your daily routine, like workouts, book club or personal self-care time. Fit holiday obligations into your everyday routine rather than letting them upset your life.
2. Be Realistic
The holiday season can be long and full of commitments, from parties to PTA meetings. To help manage stress, make a list of what you expect from yourself, what others expect from you and your responsibilities for the holidays. You may want to place them on a calendar to get a feel for what the coming months will look like. Get comfortable with the idea that you don’t have to do everything and everything doesn’t have to be perfect.
Similarly, accept that you may get sad or lonely, and that’s okay. If you’re coping with mental health concerns, they won’t go away just because of the holidays. Keep up your emotional health habits and apply when possible to your new set of responsibilities. If you’re particularly overwhelmed, talk to your emotional health professional about how to handle everything that is on your plate.
3. Do Less
The spirit of the season can sometimes lead even the most pragmatic people to overcommit their time. When you’re looking at your calendar or to-do list, be fair to yourself. Decide what’s most important to you, or where you most want to go, and allow yourself to say no to other demands on your time.
This goes for traditions as well. It’s perfectly acceptable for your traditions to change over time and to create new traditions to fit the evolving lifestyle of you, your family and friends. If a ritual causes disproportionate stress, consider forming a new one.
4. Reach Out
Despite what may seem like an influx of social interaction (trips to the mall, attending big family dinners, back-to-back holiday parties), feelings of loneliness and isolation can spike between October and January. Look for new ways to get social in your community, such as volunteering, or simply reach out to the people you care about and who care about you.
If you need more support or assistance, either emotional or physical help with specific holiday tasks, ask your friends or family. For extra hands at a volunteer event or someone to bring the dessert to a potluck, reach out to one or more specifically chosen people – you’re more likely to get a response that way than from a mass email.
5. Take a Walk
A winter walk is not only an easy source of exercise when your schedule seems packed, but sunlight offers a feel-good burst of serotonin and can help fight seasonal affective disorder. Furthermore, the rhythm and repetition of walking has a tranquilizing effect, decreasing anxiety and improving sleep.
6. Make Small Adjustments
The holiday season can seem full of big changes, so focus on little things that can help you relax. For example, take some time away from your mobile phone; disconnecting can provide some much-needed separation from the demands of people in your life, your calendar and your to-do list.
Make a point to listen to your favorite music to help relax or cook with more spices, which are associated with triggering endorphins. Small adjustments that won’t make or break your routine can be the little added boost you need to bring joy back to the holiday season.
Interested in hearing more from Northwestern Medicine? Sign up for the Healthy Tips E‑Newsletter for everything from health and wellness ideas to patient breakthroughs to academic and medical advancements.