This Too Shall Pass: Tips for Coping with the Holiday Blues
A local psychologist gives advice for coping with the holiday blues and helping friends and family who suffer from this type of seasonal sadness.
This unique season, full of holiday gatherings, family, friends and plenty of nostalgia can bring with it a mixture of emotions. While we typically associate a spirit of love, joy and peace with the holidays, for many sufferers of the "holiday blues," it can be the gloomiest time of the year.
Patch spoke with local psychologist Dr. Jody McCain to learn more about this seasonal sadness and to find out how to cope with the unwelcome feelings.
According to Dr. McCain, the holiday blues are typically characterized by increased feelings of sadness, wistfulness, anxiety or irritability. While the condition manifests itself differently among individuals, it may also include isolation, not wanting to go out, trouble sleeping, and not finding pleasure in the things that typically lift spirits.
"It's not unusual for people to have heightened emotions during the holidays, whether they be…celebration or some challenging emotions," said McCain.
The blues at this time of year can be triggered by a number of factors, explained the doctor, and they can include:
- relationship problems
- financial problems
- grief over a recent loss–this can be a loved one but it can also be the loss of a job, house, pet, or other attachment
- losses that come up from childhood such as death of a parent
- loneliness at the holidays–perhaps a single person wishing for marriage or a married person experiencing an unhappy marriage
Why is it that these problems express themselves so vehemently at this particular time of year?
McCain explained, "They get triggered around the holidays because you just watch the commercials or you watch the news and you see so many loving things people are doing or you see so many ideal—in terms of advertising—situations, and I think for people that would just raise for them what they wish was different in their own lives."
Factors such as a history of depression or anxiety can also cause particular sensitivity for those who may be predisposed to the blues.
Now that we know a little bit more about the holiday blues, what can sufferers do to cope during these couple months of the season? Dr. McCain has some suggestions:
1) "[Sufferers shouldn't] 'shame or blame' themselves for it. If they have those feelings, just acknowledge them."
Feelings of sadness and longing are not unusual at this time of year and it's okay to feel them. Once they've been acknowledged, there a few things that can help. First, McCain explained that identifying the reason behind them can be beneficial to understanding and perhaps working through them. For those that are linked to events in the past, McCain suggested sufferers "understand that the issue and the hurt is not happening now." It's important to remember that the experience is in the past and not happening now.
For those who are able to address an issue in the present, they can take action by beginning to work toward a solution and for those who do not have control over the reason behind the sorrow (such as the inability to bring back a loved one), they can work on dealing with it emotionally.
2) "Reaching out to others."
A simple way to help lift the blues can be to reach out and talk with friends, family members, clergy, or even a professional therapist if necessary. Often, these trusted individuals can provide a listening ear, and some much-needed support.
3) "Just caring for others can be a really helpful thing."
Dr. McCain suggests performing an act of kindness for another person. Perhaps this could be for a family member or friend or those looking for other options can research the many opportunities to volunteer in local communities and spread some cheer during the holidays. Check out Patch's list of opportunities in town here.
4) "Realizing that this is hopefully temporary."
While the duration of these feelings during the holiday season can drastically differ from one individual to another, McCain said that for a simple case of the holiday blues, they should pass by the second week of January, shortly after new years.
If the sadness and altered mood persist into February or March, a visit to a professional is recommended, as it may be a more serious clinical condition. In addition to seeing a therapist, McCain also suggested visiting a physician to rule out other health problems such as sleep disorders or thyroid issues.
5) "Exercise and good nutrition is excellent."
Through the years, medical research has shown that a healthy diet and exercise is a simple and fairly easy way to lift a mood.
"What I just want to get across to people is not to beat up on themselves and expect that they should be as happy as the world tells them they should be," said McCain. "Give yourself a break and say, 'It's okay.'"
For those who are not experiencing the blues this season but have loved ones who are, McCain also has advice for comforting and listening to friends and family in their times of need.
1) "Listen without 'shame or blame.'
When someone comes to you wanting to talk about what they are going through at this time of the year, all you have to do is listen. McCain said to be aware that you shouldn't feel like you have to solve their problems for them. Sometimes, lending a kind ear is enough.
2) "Let them feel their feelings."
McCain said, "Mostly, people just want you to say, 'Boy, that sounds hard for you…I'm sorry, it's got to be hard that you miss your mom.' They don't usually want someone to fix it for them."
3) "Be careful that you balance listening to them and loving them but also if it gets too much of a burden for you, that you also tell them of other support."
Don't forget to take care of yourself as you assist your friends and family. If the problems of others become burdensome for you, recommend that they reach out to someone such as a professional counselor or a clergy member who can give additional guidance. There are also excellent online resources and support groups available where sufferers of the holiday blues can seek further help.
Whether you are the one who suffers from the blues at this time of year or you know someone who does, be alert for feelings of extreme hopelessness, thoughts of harming oneself, or severe distress to the point when it's difficult to get out of bed.
If these warning signs are present, seek immediate help by contacting the following emergency services in our area: 24-Hour-Crisis Hotline at Overlook Hospital: 973-540-0100 or 908-522-2232; Contact We Care NJ 24-Hour Crisis Hotline: 908-232-2880; Primary Screening Center, Union County; Trinitas Regional Medical Center Hotline: 908-994-7131; In any medical emergency, call 9-1-1.
Dr. Jody McCain grew up in New Providence where her family lived for over 40 years. She attended New Providence High School and ran her psychology practice out of New Providence for over 5 years. About six months ago, she relocated her office to Summit but said, "I still have a big heart for New Providence!"