'Tis the season to be jolly? Not necessarily. For many people the holiday season, which kicks off with Thanksgiving and spans through New Year's, is anything but blissful. In fact, this time of year may trigger a bout of the blues or perhaps ignite a depression that has been smoldering under the surface for months.
"Holiday blues are a pretty common problem despite the fact that as a society, we see the holidays as a joyous time," says Rakesh Jain, MD, director of psychiatric drug research at the R/D Clinical Research Center in Lake Jackson, Texas. "Many people feel depressed, which can be due to the increased stress that comes with the need to shop and the decreased time to exercise which gets put on the back burner during the holidays."
While people with clinical depression should seek professional help, those with a touch of the holiday blues can try these strategies recommended by experts to assure a jolly Christmas and a happy new year.
Visiting Ghosts of Christmas Past
"See what it was in the past that led to trouble, whether drinking too much alcohol or not exercising enough or the decreased social contact that comes from going to parties with relative strangers, but forgetting to connect with friends and family," Jain suggests. "Every time depression visits, it leaves a fingerprint. Look for what in the past has been a repeat source of trouble and find ways to avoid it. If you plan, it's very likely that you won't be singing the blues this holiday season."
Sending a Holiday Card -- to Yourself
"Writing about your holiday blues can actually change them," says Darlene Mininni, PhD, MPH, author of The Emotional Toolkit. "People who write about their deepest feelings when they're upset are less depressed, less anxious, and more positive about life than people who write about mundane things," she tells WebMD. She suggests writing for 15 minutes a day for three or four days in a row and answering such questions as "Why does this upset me so much?" Or "What would I like to see happen?"
Laying off the Eggnog
Alcohol and holidays often go hand in hand; imbibing may seem especially tempting at the annual office holiday party. But don't give into temptation if you are in a negative state of mind, Mininni says. "If you are depressed, alcohol will make you more depressed because it is a depressant."
Speaking of holiday fetes, "a lot of people dread the holidays because they are not looking forward to the parties," says David Baron, DO, chairman of psychiatry and behavioral health sciences at Temple University School of Medicine and Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. "If you feel politically obligated to go to an office party, go for a few minutes and make sure the boss sees you. Wish your colleagues a happy holiday and say you have another commitment," he says.
Unwrapping Your Heart
"Gift giving can cause stress and unhappiness on so many levels, such as if a person doesn't have the money or time," Minnini says. "Do something better than buying a gift -- give a gift certificate to spend time with you when the holidays are over. Or if it's someone you care for, write them a letter telling them why they are so wonderful," she says, adding that this is what she and her husband do each year.
Baron agrees. He suggests asking yourself if someone is really going to think less of you if you buy them a cotton sweater instead of a cashmere sweater. It's better to give a gift from the heart as opposed to one from Saks Fifth Avenue or an equally tony boutique. "Blow up a picture and place it in a nice frame" for example, he says.
Shaking Things Up
"If your father died and you always spent Christmas Eve with dad, rather than sit home, do something different," Minnini says. "Start a new annual friends' dinner or go to a house of worship," she says. "A lot of people feel sad and lonely during the holidays because they think you should be kissing someone at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and when that doesn't happen, they feel bad,' Minnini says. "Who says that is the only tradition that there is? Create a new tradition instead."
The bottom line is when you expect something to happen, and it doesn't, you feel lousy. "It's not necessarily the holiday that's the problem, it's our rigid expectations of it," she says. "Your family tensions probably existed the rest of the year, but they didn't upset you as much as they do now because you weren't comparing them to your holiday expectations," she explains.
Reaching Out and Touching Someone
If you ask yourself why you are down and the reason is that you can't afford to visit your Aunt Sally this year, the solution is simple, Baron says. "Use your cellular on weekends or after 4 p.m. when you can have an extended phone conversation, often for free," Baron says.
Avoiding Scrooges and Grinches
"Look at how to protect yourself from the energy vampires of the holiday season who deplete your holiday energy reserve," suggests Judith Orloff, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of Positive Energy. They can include the drama queens, blamers, criticizers, and sob sisters, she explains. Instead, "try and be around positive people. If your Aunt Meg can suddenly start up and start blaming and criticizing you and make you feel like a wreck, don't sit next to her. Stake out a seat early."
"If you know sitting next to Uncle Jake at Christmas dinner will freak you out, assure that whoever does the seating arrangement moves you to another location," says Susan Newman, PhD. Newman is the author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It -- and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. "Don't be wishy-washy about decisions. People can't read your mind. If something upsets you they won't know it unless you say so."
Not Going Home for the Holidays
"If you want to go to your partners' family this year and you have always gone home, simply explain that this is what you want to do and don't obsess about the consequences," Newman says. "Remember, people are really looking to get something done and they are not thinking about you as much you think they are. When you say no, they are on to the next person or task. When you say no to people, you put yourself first and during the holidays, we are always putting everybody else in front of us."
Not Burning the Yule Log on Both Ends
"Meditate," Orloff suggests. "Carve out three minutes a day to relieve stress and use your breath to calm down and focus on the positive. Picture a child's face, a waterfall or a flower."
"There's so much pressure around the holidays to perform, be happy, and look good that I would try repeating a mantra to myself," Newman says. "Say 'I will not give in to the pressure' over and over again to remind yourself that you deserve to be in control of your time."
Dashing Through the Snow
"Get outside and exercise," says psychologist Joan Borysenko, PhD. Borysenko is the author of the soon-to-be-published book Saying Yes to Change.
"This can be hard because if you live in certain parts of the country, it's cold and snowing during the holiday season. But getting outside is great because you get sun, fresh air, and exercise," she says. Exercise has been shown to boost level of endorphins, the body's natural antidepressants.
Lending Santa a Helping Hand
"Volunteer to help someone," Borysenko says. "Deliver presents for Santa or help at a homeless shelter. This is really the top thing that people can do to turn their holiday blues around. Altruism and volunteerism make you feel better about yourself, but they also get you out of your rut, home, and isolation. This is a time of year where the spirit of helping and compassion is right there, and if you can tap into it by helping others, that's great!"
Remembering That It Really Is 'A Wonderful Life'
"Be grateful for what you do have and all the positive things that have happened in your life," Orloff says. "Talk to supportive friends on the phone and find the kind of support to make you feel less lonely rather than dwelling on the loneliness."
Jain agrees. "Thinking that the glass is half full, not half empty, is a simple but effective tool," he says. "Instead of thinking about what you can't buy, think about the extra time and joy that you have to share with your friends and family."
Creating a Photo Opportunity
Many people actually love the holidays and feel let down only when the holiday season is over, Baron says. But making a plan to get together after New Year's can help keep the holiday spirit alive longer. "Take lots of pictures over the holidays and plan a late-January get-together where everyone can share their pictures," he suggests. "It's something to look forward to without waiting for the spring thaw."