Hang on tight! We’re headed full-throttle into the “most wonderful time of the year,” surrounded by images of family and friends huddled together joyfully celebrating. While it is a wonderful time of the year for many, for some it can also be a time of anxiety, stress and sadness especially as Americans continue to feel unsettled by the outcome of the recent election.
We’re all familiar with the term “holiday blues,” but we may not realize how prevalent feelings of anxiety or depression can be during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. A recent survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 64 percent of respondents reported being affected by “holiday blues” with 68 percent feeling financially strained and 63 percent experiencing too much pressure. The extra stress, unrealistic expectations and added financial burden of the season can trigger these feelings but so can the loss of loved one or broken family or personal relationships.
Being aware of symptoms of holiday blues is one of the first steps to ensuring you and your loved ones navigate the holidays in the healthiest possible way. Some of the symptoms to watch for include:
• Mood swings.
• Weight gain.
• Excessive sleeping.
• Persistent sadness.
• Extreme sense of loss.
• Emotional numbness.
• Trouble concentrating.
So what’s the difference between holiday blues and clinical anxiety or depression? Holiday blues are temporary and come and go around the holiday season. However, if symptoms persist on a daily basis for more than two weeks and impact daily functioning, it’s a good idea to the seek guidance of your primary care physician. For people with pre-existing mental health diagnoses, it’s especially important to prioritize maintaining a regular treatment routine as well as rigorous self-care.
Once you know the causes of the holiday blues, you can avoid them by being attentive to the following:
• Stick to normal routines as much as possible.
• Get enough sleep or rest.
• Take time for yourself, but don’t isolate yourself. Spend time with supportive, caring people.
• Eat and drink in moderation. Don’t’ drink alcohol if you are feeling down.
• Get exercise, even if it’s only taking a short walk.
• Make a to-do list. Keep things simple.
• Set reasonable expectations and goals for holiday activities
• Set a budget for holiday activities. Don’t overextend yourself.
• Listen to music.
• Remember that holiday blues are short-term. Be patient. Take things week by week and day by day.
If symptoms of depression or anxiety last more than 2-3 weeks any time of year, it could indicate a more serious mental health issue. If you think it’s more than holiday blues, here’s what you can do for yourself or for a loved one:
• Talk with your doctor . A comprehensive physical exam needs to be part of assessment to rule out some physical causes.
• Get a referral to a mental health professional.
• Educate yourself and become familiar with the resources. Someone may know that something is off but not recognize or understand symptoms or how to find help.
• If a friend or relative is showing symptoms, reach out to them. Ask them privately how things are going. Use a prompt like “I’ve noticed you seem a little sad or frustrated. Is everything OK?” Don’t be judgmental or trivialize what they may be feeling. Just listen and affirm.
• Offer to make the appointment for the person and accompany them to the doctor’s office for support. It can make a big difference.
It’s the season to be jolly, but the holidays are also the best time of the year to remember the gift of good self-care and encourage friends, family and co-workers to do the same. If you know someone who is experiencing the holiday blues, share this information with them or visit the NAMI Austin holiday blues page at namiaustin.org/managing-the-holiday-blues/. NAMI Austin also provides lists of resources including support groups and sliding scale counseling.
Ranus is the executive director of NAMI Austin.