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By Heather Cruickshank
- Signs of holiday cheer can have a flip side for many dealing with loss, anxiety, or depression.
- Disruptions to your diet, exercise habits, and sleep schedule can also take a toll and lead to holiday blues.
- Experts say there are clear ways to cope including connecting with others, managing expectations, and practicing self-care.
The holiday season is a joyful time for many people — but it can also be a harbinger of stress.
For those who are coping with loneliness or grief over the loss of a loved one, holiday traditions and activities may heighten feelings of isolation and sadness.
Buying gifts, making food, traveling, and managing other holiday responsibilities can also strain people's emotional and financial reserves.
Disruptions to your diet, exercise habits, and sleep schedule can affect your physical and mental health, too. Even seasonal reductions in sunlight can take a toll.
If you find yourself struggling with feelings of stress, anxiety, or sadness, you're not alone. Here are five strategies that may help you ward off the holiday blues this year.
1. Connect With Others
If you struggle with feelings of isolation, loneliness, or sadness around the holidays, reaching out to family members and friends may help.
"For those persons who experience loneliness or depression during the holiday season, it's especially important to reach out to family and friends," Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN, a mental health specialist and professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, told Healthline.
"These individuals should strive to connect in real life with one person per day," she continued. "Call a friend on the phone, make a plan to meet someone for a walk or for coffee — anything that connects the person to another person."
If you don't have a lot of people to call or visit, volunteering for a local organization may give you the chance to meet new people and strengthen your connections with your community.
"Doing something meaningful for others can help mediate loneliness, depression, and stress during the holidays," Shattell said.
"Taking part in a service project or volunteering for your favorite organization can help one feel less alone, less stressed, and more alive," she added.
2. Acknowledge Feelings of Loss
For people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, certain holiday traditions or memories may serve as a reminder of their absence.
Rather than try to suppress feelings of sadness, it may help to acknowledge them and take time to commemorate the person you've lost.
"For people who are experiencing grief over the death of loved ones, especially those who have died since the last holiday season, it is helpful to acknowledge the loss and celebrate the life as it was lived, the memories that remain," Shattell said.
You might find it comforting to establish a new holiday tradition in their honor. On the other hand, you might decide to skip other traditions or activities that are too painful to participate in without them.
Give yourself freedom to choose how you'll mark the holiday and your loved one's memory, recommends the Hospice Foundation of America.
3. Manage Expectations
Setting realistic expectations is essential for limiting stress.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, it's okay to scale back on your holiday decorations, baking goals, or social calendar. Rather than taking on everything, the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends prioritizing the tasks and activities that are most important to you.
Sticking to a holiday budget may also help limit stress by reducing financial strain. Don't spend more money on gifts or activities than you can afford.
If you find yourself struggling to meet the expectations of other people, it's important to recognize and communicate your needs and limits, Brett Marroquín, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University, told Healthline.
"I tend to talk to patients about interpersonal effectiveness skills, ways to communicate with partners, with adult parents, and with families that have to do with clearly asserting your needs, being really clear about what your needs and your emotions are, and having boundaries," Marroquín said.
"What can I fulfill? What do I need to do to take care of myself? Communicating all those things," he continued.
4. Practice Self-Care
Although it might not be your number one priority during the holiday season, practicing healthy habits is important for maintaining good mental health.
"Basic stuff like keeping a healthy diet, keeping up your exercise, keeping up the activities you typically do, including the positive activities that you just enjoy doing, and not letting the stressful stuff sort of overwhelm all that and supersede all of that — it creates the foundation for healthy coping," Marroquín said.
Try to get enough sleep, get some exercise, and moderate your intake of holiday treats.
It's also best to avoid consuming alcohol when you're feeling stressed or blue, advises Dr. Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
5. Plan Ahead
Whatever holiday stressors you expect to encounter, planning ahead may help you cope.
For some people, that might mean blocking time off in their calendars to shop when they expect grocery stores or malls to be less busy.
For others, it might mean planning a special activity or gathering with friends on a day when they anticipate feeling lonely or sad.
"If you know that Christmas Day or New Year's Eve is a particularly stressful time for you, maybe because of a loss that happened around that period or because you've always spent time with your grandpa and he's gone now," Marroquín said, "is there something you can do on that day, is there something you can plan with other family members for that day?"
"A lot of the research is really clear," he continued, "that when you're active in planning coping in advance for challenges you know are coming, the better off you're going to be."
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