It’s easy to think that everyone loves the holidays—tree lightings, festive gatherings, family parties, and corny White Elephant gift exchanges can be fun.
The truth? “If you sample adults, it turns out there’s a small percentage of people who love the holidays,” says John Sharp, M.D., author of The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life. “Most people find them stressful.”
We’re not saying Bah, humbug to now through January 1, it’s just that if you’re not jazzed by Christmas music, psyched to spend time with family, or—worse—feel more down in the dumps than usual, you’re not alone.
There are a whole slew of factors that contribute to seasonal sadness, says Sari Chait, Ph.D., a Boston-based clinical psychologist. One big one: “There are often very high expectations for a happy, picture-perfect holiday season,” she says. “The expectation is often that everyone is coupled up happily, families are laughing and having fun together, and everyone can afford to buy whatever gifts they want.”
When reality doesn’t meet those expectations? Sadness can ensue.
“The holidays can also be a sad reminder of the family and friends who are no longer with us or the friends and family we never had and never will have,” says Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D. a clinical psychologist and owner of North Carolina-based Harborside Wellbeing.
If you recently experienced a loss—a breakup or a death, for example—you’re at even more of a heightened risk for being bummed out, says Nicole Issa, Psy.D., co-founder of the Center for Dynamic and Behavioral Therapy in New York City.
(This is all without saying that cold, gray weather and a wacky schedule can throw your mood off, too.)
Fortunately, there are ways to feel better and—dare we say?—enjoy the weeks ahead. Here, suggestions from the pros.
Do Something Different
Hate going to your aunt’s every year for the holidays? Spent the past few Christmases since your divorce alone? Don’t, experts say.
Planning a small getaway if you have the means to—ideally somewhere warm where you can be active—can give you something to look forward and allow you to enjoy your time much more, says Issa. Another idea? Give back. “Contributing to others can not only give you a sense of accomplishment but it also might just make you feel a bit better,” says Issa. If the local food bank feels like too much, volunteer virtually. Check out Operation Warm, she suggests.
Be the Inviter
Waiting around for invites that don’t come can be the absolute pits, which is why Tauber Prior suggests flipping the wait-around routine on its head. “Be the one to do the inviting,” she suggests. Invites can be simple: a football game with friends; going to a free holiday event in your town with neighbors.
“Neuroscientists have shown that proactivity works because it helps the brain make connections between all the moving parts of the day to come up with a streamlined game plan,” Tauber Prior says. Proactivity also works to reduce anxiety, giving you a sense of control, she notes. You’ll feel accomplished rather than like you have to hyper-react to an invitation that does or doesn’t (which can be anxiety-provoking), she notes.
Also: If you’re down, a beer and the couch might sound better than a pickup game with your buddies, but meeting up with friends can hugely impact your mood for the better, Chait says.
Delete Your Instagram App (Temporarily)
Social media has a way of making everyone’s life seem better than yours. “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides,” says Sharp. If you do, your college roommates’ family trip to Bermuda or the rest of the cyberspace world’s endless parties will only make you feel like you’re not living your best life, rocketing you into a cycle of negativity, says Chait. Plus, research finds that as your internet and social media use increases, so can feelings of loneliness and depression. Instead of scrolling, meet up with a buddy.
“A person’s feelings of well-being increase once they re-connect with others face-to-face,” says Tauber Prior. Don’t feel like you need the full social media detox? At the bare minimum, put your phone away when you’re with friends to enjoy the time more.
Set an End-of-Year Goal
Taking good care of yourself matters—especially during stressful times—and sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise go a long way in fighting back against sadness. Kick things up a notch by setting a December goal around fitness, nutrition, or health (maybe you finally want to learn to do a handstand or want to actually try your hand at meal prepping), suggests Sharp. Doing so can help you finish the year strong—and feel accomplished, instilling a sense of pride and happiness that might just reign over the sadness.
Go Online for Therapy
Feel like your mood is getting in the way of things you used to love doing? Find yourself angry, gassed, like you’re pushing people away, or as though you’ve been weighed down for weeks? With depression, early intervention is crucial, says Issa. Since it might be tough to get penciled in with an in-real-life therapist over the holidays, consider online therapy, she suggests. (Your health insurance company can tell you which companies they work with.) “You don’t need to worry about travel time and other difficulties associated with scheduling to get to an appointment.”
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