Avoiding the Holiday Blues—14 Tips or Topics

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The end of the year brings holidays and celebrations—time to get together with family and friends, time to be happy and enjoy life, and time to reflect on the year and your life.  With all those good aspects, the holidays also come with stress, distress, and struggles.

This year will be different.  We are in the midst of a global pandemic.  We are wearing masks and practicing social distancing.  We are traveling less, and we are having fewer in-person social contacts.  This will further change the holiday season this year.  Many will be more isolated, and all of us will be without our full complement of family and friends.

You can prepare for this, and there are steps you can take to prevent many of the potential problems. There are three areas of concentration of these efforts—preparing yourself psychologically, structuring your social and family interactions, and maintaining yourself physically.

First, you—your mindset and your expectations.

Set realistic expectations for the holidays this year. There will be fewer parties. There will be fewer large family dinners. There will be less in-person socializing. Be more planful about the holidays than usual. Who do you want to see this holiday season? Make a plan to insure that those contacts happen. How are they going to occur, in-person with social distancing, or over Zoom, or through a series of extended e-mails or phone calls?

Be optimistic. Develop an optimistic attitude. Live and enjoy the present—what is happening now, who you are with, what you are doing together. Consider what else might be fun to do—tomorrow or next week. Plan for it, and make it happen.

Be kind to yourself.  You and your events do not have to be “perfect.” Accept imperfection. The measure of success should be “good enough”—to permit everyone (including you) to have a good time. Make time for yourself, time to do something that you enjoy (with or without others).  It might be a special treat or a favorite food or a special activity.

Acknowledge your feelings. Let yourself feel your feelings. Be aware of the emotions you are experiencing. They may not all be happy or good ones, but let yourself be aware of whatever you are feeling and however mixed or confusing the feelings might be.  Consider “opening up” and talking about your feelings with others. This can help you feel more connected with others. Have a heart-to-heart chat with someone close and important to you. You can meditate to calm your thoughts.  You can use deep breathing to calm your body. And, let yourself laugh. Laughter truly is good medicine.

Spread out your celebrations (and your energy) over a reasonable range of events. Three or four events involving different groups of people might make sense.  Ten or twelve events does not. Neither does none. Do not concentrate all of your energy on one event on one day—with you responsible for the majority of the tasks to make it happen.  Share the responsibilities with others. Involve those who will be participating in the process of preparing for and cleaning up after the event, whatever it might be. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Do not take on too much (or too little). Don’t be afraid to say “no.” It is OK to turn down a proposed Facetime call or Zoom meeting.

Next, the social and family interactions of the holiday season. Structure and perspective.

Spend most of your socializing time with caring and supportive and empathic people. People who want to be with you and who you want to be with. People who will listen to you, interact with you, and share their thoughts and feelings. Think about those who you often see during the holidays but will not this year. Send them a longer e-note of holiday greetings and good cheer.  Consider a follow-up phone call.  Is there someone who you have meet recently who you would like to develop a friendship with?  Consider reaching out, whether by phone, e-mail, or in a safe in-person manner. Consider reaching out to long lost relatives or friends. Who have you not seen in some time who you would enjoy catching up with?  Check up on them on the Internet, and send them a message of holiday well wishes. Stay connected to others.

Plan for frustrating situations, because they will happen.  It might be a long checkout line at the grocery store or a difficult processing of an online order. If you are waiting in line or on hold, use the time to reflect on the things in your life about which you are grateful. Plan for an empathic comment you can make to the busy clerk when it is your turn. Or, use the time to meditate or practice deep breathing.

Set aside known differences with specific family members or—think about what connects you. Think about that relative who frustrates you every year. Plan to make a different response to him or her this year. Respond with empathy, with kindness, with a comment that acknowledges what they must be feeling.  Consider how you can transform expected stressful interactions into a more pleasant, more mutual exchange. 

Plan new traditions for the holidays. Many of your old traditions may not be possible this year. What new activities and events might you plan in their place?  It is better to plan new ways to celebrate than focus on what is not possible this year. New activities might involve cooking decorating, singing and dancing, gift making, writing or photo taking, or winter walks.

Consider volunteering. Give to someone in need. The process of giving to others can be very satisfying and rewarding to the user. There are many organized charities that provide food, shelter, heating, clothes. Make a small donation to several of them. Volunteering can occur in many different ways, including activities such a caring phone calls to those who are shut in or hospitalized. This can be coordinated through facilities or community organizations.

Finally, take care of yourself—physically and emotionally.

You live in a human biological body.  Take good care of it during the holidays. Attend to the basics—sleeping, eating, and exercise. Get enough sleep, with a regular time to get up as well as go to bed. Avoid burning the candle at both ends. Eat well, eat in a balanced way.  Do not over eat, even though that temptation may frequently present itself. Avoid too much sugar and caffeine.  And, get moving. Exercise daily. Take a 20-minute walk.  Walk up and down the stairs five times.

Limit your alcohol intake.  Drinking as a means to relax is counterproductive. Drinking can be hard on your body. It can make you less motivated and less energetic. It can make you more irritable. The same is true for recreational drugs. Practice moderation with all substances you might choose to use.  Alcohol can serve as a social ice-breaker, but if you’re isolated it can increase feelings of loneliness.  Consider not using.

Get outside, and try to be in nature. Get access to any sunlight available.  Keep your environment bright.  Turn on the lights. Consider adding extra lights or purchasing a light box, these provide concentrated light and some studies show that they can help with seasonal affective disorder. If you have holiday traditions, maintain them even if you don’t have the usual number of family and friends around you.  Decorate, put up lights, put up a tree with lights, even if it is a small table top one. Consider vitamin D supplements. 

Pace yourself. Do not take on too much or spend too much. Making a schedule might help. Monitor and pace your holiday spending. Make lists and stick to them.  Avoid impulse shopping. Know who you plan to buy gifts for, estimate the price range for each, and stick to your spending plans. And, as noted earlier, make time for yourself, too.

Have the most enjoyable holiday season possible given your circumstances and the options available. A little planning, psychological preparation and rehearsal, and monitoring can prevent problems and enhance your social encounters, even though they’ll be different this year than usual—for a happy holidays. Be well. Enjoy.


Gary R. VandenBos, PhD

Gary R. VandenBos, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. He is the senior professional consultant at the National Register of Health Service Psychologists. He previously served as the publisher of the American Psychological Association for over 30 years. He is the coauthor of Leaving It at the Office: A Guide to Psychotherapist Self-Care, Second Edition.