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10 ways to beat holiday sadness

Woman wrapped in a blanked and drinking from a mug

For some, stress, depression and anxiety make the holidays hard instead of joyful. We asked the experts how to get through them.  

Emily Shiffer

By Emily Shiffer

The holidays are meant to be a time of cheer, joy and peace. But for many, they don’t live up to the promise.

For some, family dynamics and financial demands make the holidays feel overwhelming, says Therese Rosenblatt, PhD. She’s a psychologist and psychoanalyst based in New York City. For others, the season is a painful reminder of people they’ve lost.

The causes are many, but the effect is clear: The so-called cheeriest time of the year can be fraught with tough emotions. Almost two-thirds of people with mental illnesses say their conditions become worse during the holidays. This is according to a survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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Holiday marketing may be part of the problem. The flood of images showing happy families can make it seem as though you’re missing out on life.

“Let’s not forget all the commercials that tug at our heartstrings and offer somewhat unrealistic family ‘reunions’ and moments of forgiveness and reconnecting,” says Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. “It’s difficult to not think, ‘What's wrong with me? Why can’t I have a better relationship with my family?’”

If the holidays are hard to handle, there are some things you can do. Pick a few of these expert-backed strategies to help lift the weight.

1. Let go of unrealistic expectations

If you idealize the holidays, you might be disappointed when things turn out to be less than ideal. “So let go of your attachment to what the holidays ‘should’ be like,” says Ling Lam, PhD. He’s a licensed psychotherapist, TEDx speaker and lecturer in counseling psychology at California’s Santa Clara University. “Practice radical acceptance of what is. Find things you feel grateful for in the here and now.”

In other words, stop trying to re-create the perfect images you see in holiday movies and commercials. Real life is more complicated than that. And that’s okay.

2. Identify habits that trigger sadness

Many people drink more alcohol or eat more during the holidays. But these coping mechanisms often backfire, says Lam. They might make you feel better for a moment, but they usually make you feel worse in the long run.

So try to identify your bad habits. Then swap them out for healthy alternatives. “Replace [your bad habits] with proven stress-regulation strategies,” says Lam. Here are some mood-boosting habits he recommends working into your daily routine:

If you’re experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and you can’t get outside for daily sunlight, Lam also recommends that you expose yourself to bright artificial lights. This can help your skin produce vitamin D.

Indoor fluorescent lighting works well, or you can purchase an affordable, lightweight LED lamp designed to stimulate vitamin D production.

3. Adopt creative new holiday rituals

If the holidays bring up painful memories, try replacing your old traditions with new ones. This can help distance yourself from the past with new foods, games and decorations that have only positive associations.

“For example, last year was a difficult one during COVID for my family,” says Cook. “So we added a new tradition to our holiday and hit a piñata filled with candy on Christmas Day. Great fun!”

4. While you’re at it, play some new music

Music can dredge up old memories, too, says Cook. And during the holidays, it’s common to hear the same tunes over and over. You may even be the one pushing play.

So build a new soundtrack around your new routine. “Stop listening to songs that are familiar,” says Cook. “Play a completely different genre or download songs that have been remixed so you can rewire those neural pathways to avoid taking you down memory lane.”

5. Seek professional help

Talking to a professional can help you identify solutions that are specific to your mental pain. “Do not hesitate to seek the help of a therapist,” says Rosenblatt, the author of How Are You? Connection in a Virtual Age: A Therapist, a Pandemic, and Stories About Coping with Life. “Most trained therapists are well-equipped to help you navigate these difficult holiday blues so that you don’t have to feel so alone with them.”

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6. Start a narrative journal

Writing provides a great release. In a study from Penn State University, people who logged 3 weekly writing sessions had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression after just 1 month. And each session lasted just 15 minutes.

You can write whatever’s on your mind, but Cook recommends a specific exercise: Rewrite your own personal story the way you wish it had played out. You can change anything. “This is for you to take back control and try to move forward with living the way you want," she says.

As you begin writing, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What would it have been like if things hadn’t ended the way they did?
  • How would your feelings toward the situation change if the ending did?
  • What would you do differently now?
  • What are you missing today, and what could you do to get it?

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7. Donate your time

Volunteering at a local school, animal shelter or soup kitchen can help you feel better about life, says Lam.

Writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers recently attempted to quantify the benefit. They came up with a crude estimate: For the average middle-class person, regularly volunteering provides a happiness boost equal to earning about $1,240 extra per year.

Of course, you don’t volunteer for financial gain. But the number helps illustrate that the benefit is real.

8. Set boundaries to protect your time

For some people, holiday blues may come from stress. Maybe you’re trying to see every friend and relative and attend every holiday party, either in person or over Zoom. As a result, you might be stretching yourself too thin.

So don’t be afraid to politely decline an invitation. “Leave a lot of space for rest and restoration,” says Lam. “Create space for you to just be.” While you’re at it, limit how often you check email and social media, recommends Lam. These distractions can make you feel busy even when you’re not.

9. Stop comparing your experience to others

It’s easy to imagine other people sitting around a fireplace laughing with their happy families. But it’s not helpful. And it’s also not how most people experience the holidays.

“Remind yourself that many people share your feelings of sadness,” says Rosenblatt. “It is really true that the media’s representation of the holidays tends to be unrealistic and painted in ideal terms. You are comparing your experience to an unrealistic standard.”

Again, you may also want to limit social media here. If you feel bad looking at people’s curated photo feeds (they always leave out the messy moments, don’t they?), then you might want to sign out for the holidays.

10. Remind yourself that this too shall pass

If your sadness really is limited to the holiday season, then it might be helpful to simply keep that in mind. “Often we are afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel sadness, it will go on forever,” says Lam. “But it won’t. Sadness is like a wave: It comes, and it goes away.”

Remember that the new year is just around the corner, and with it comes a new beginning. The holiday season will come and go quickly,” says Rosenblatt. “It takes place in a limited amount of time, and then life goes back to normal. You can survive this.”

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