Many people look forward to the holidays as a time to relax and celebrate with family and friends. The traditions of each holiday, the time off of work, and the chance to see family are all things to get excited about. This air of excitement and nostalgia makes it surprising to find out the holidays can be a time of extreme sadness.
For many people who struggle with mental illness, the holidays aren’t a welcome time of cheer. In a study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people with mental illnesses report that the holidays make their conditions worse. Yet at the same time, others look forward to the holidays every single year. What does this mean? Researchers have identified many different psychological reasons why the holiday season helps or harms our mental health, and we’re going to explore a few of them today!
Why Would the Holidays Be Depressing?
The first reason why many find the holidays difficult has been termed Seasonal Affective Disorder. Approximately 14% of Americans experience this condition every single year. While seasonal patterns of depression can apply to both winter and summer seasons, people in northern parts of the globe are more likely to experience the wintertime variety because of the shorter days and longer nights.
Individuals who experience stronger feelings of depression in the wintertime report daytime fatigue, lack of interest in social activities, and feelings of hopelessness. Increased social expectations often bring on such feelings during the holidays because of all the events and the perception of others being unusually joyful. This is not to say that people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder want others to be unhappy. It is relevant to acknowledge the winter months can be harder for our loved ones who already suffer from depression.
Aside from seasonal affective disorder, there is another significant reason why holidays can be difficult. For people who have recently lost a family member or close friend, the nostalgia and traditions of holiday celebrations can be intense reminders of their loved one’s absence. Even if we aren’t grieving the death of a loved one, events such as breakups, divorce, or family estrangement can make it challenging to navigate the season. Dr. Suzanne Degges-White writes that “not everyone is lucky enough to have a family, intimate friend group, or neighbors to ensure that they feel a sense of connection and belonging.”
What Can I Do about It?
If we know that the holidays can be a time of increased sadness and stress, what can we do to prepare? First, learn how to say no. Everyone wants to take advantage of the time with friends and family, but committing to every party or event that comes your way is a recipe for stress. Your loved ones will understand that you can’t be available for every outing or activity they’ll be hosting, so choose which options are most important to you and gracefully decline the rest.
Next, be sure to maintain your healthy habits. Whether we’re talking about your diet, drinking, or sleep schedule, the freedom and mood of celebration that comes with the holidays make it easier to lose control. Instead, plan and commit to staying on top of these things. For example, eating a healthy snack before holiday meals will make it easier to stick to healthy portions. Moreover, fitting some exercise into your schedule each day can reduce your stress levels and help you sleep better. Such strategies may sound simple, but they can make a big difference in your holiday season experience.
What Exactly Makes Holidays Joyful?
With that in mind, we should consider the psychological reasons for the benefit of the holidays. One of the biggest factors is nostalgia.
Dr. Krystine Batcho says, “People feel more nostalgic during the holidays because many memories are reawakened, and relationships renewed. During the holidays, families and friends get together to celebrate and reconnect; they get caught up on one another’s lives, reminisce, and browse through old photographs.”
This end-of-year nostalgia can feel very meaningful and give a much-needed boost to our mood!
On top of nostalgia, the holidays are a time of rituals. The sense of familiarity and routine associated with rituals can provide a strong feeling of peace and security. As Dimitris Xygalatas, a professor of anthropology, explains, “Everyday life is stressful and full of uncertainty. Having a special time of the year when we know exactly what to do, the way we’ve always done it provides a comfortable sense of structure, control, and stability.” These positive psychological effects can make the holidays a time to await with eagerness.
A Parting Reminder
Whether you look forward to the coming winter or you find that the holidays are a time of increased stress and sadness, there is hope! If you struggle with seasonal affective disorder, plenty of resources and strategies are designed to help you. Tips like maintaining your sleep schedule and being willing to say no can have a clear impact on our mental health during the holidays, and we owe it to our loved ones to share these ideas when they’re having a difficult time. So enjoy this holiday season, and stay tuned to Top Doctor Magazine for more!