The WellSpan Spotlight

Mental health and wellbeing

When the holidays don't feel happy, here's how to cope 

When the holidays don't feel happy, here's how to cope

'Tis the season to be jolly. 

That is, unless you're lonely, grieving, stressed out by work, out of work, part of a chaotic, dysfunctional family, or any one of the many other messy realities that come along with being human. 

You're not alone. 

While the holidays are filled with romantic Hallmark movies and sentimental tunes like "I'll Be Home for Christmas," more than half of survey respondents – 55 percent – said they were experiencing sadness and loneliness during the holidays last year, according to a poll of more than 2,000 Americans taken by ValuePenguin, a consumer research company. 

We often simply have unrealistic viewpoints of others, and unrealistic expectations for ourselves, making it difficult to enjoy holiday moments. 

"The holidays are tough for many people because they can trigger thoughts and feelings related to past conflicts, losses, and traumas. Expectations can be unreasonably high for things to be better or different," said Nicholas Martino, Psy.D., a WellSpan Philhaven psychologist. "With social and other types of media we are flooded with images of 'happy' families having wonderful times. Our lives may seem lacking by comparison."  

For those who are mourning the loss of a loved one, the season can be particularly challenging. 

"It is natural to feel a heightened sense of loss at this time of year for those who are already grieving. This is a season of love and connecting with others, and you are grieving because you have loved and lost that connection," Martino said. "Honor your feelings. Embrace the love that you shared and know that, with time, most people are able to find meaning again in the holidays and ways to connect with the people we have lost." 

Along with the losses, past conflicts, and traumas making the holidays difficult, everyday stressors don't go away and, in fact, can be heightened during the holidays. Hectic schedules can mean less sleep, overeating, and excessive drinking. We can be trying harder to please everyone with the right gifts, the right words, and the right amount of time. We might live far away from family or experience conflicting schedules – or just plain conflict – making holiday gatherings difficult. 

Here are some ways to tame the holiday blues, and take better care of yourself this year: 

  • Focus on healthy habits. Eat a balanced diet, get enough rest, and avoid drinking too much. Your mind will feel better if your body is in good shape. 
  • Do for others. This is a great time to find a way to help others in your community. Serve a meal at a shelter. Start a volunteer gig at an animal rescue or food bank. Adopt a needy family for the holidays. Getting outside of yourself can bring joy and a sense of belonging. 
  • Start new traditions if you are missing a loved one. Light a candle. Create a memory box of favorite moments, adding favorite new memories to it every year. 
  • When they zig, you zag. Don't feel compelled to do the traditional activities. Go to the movies. Get takeout food. Load up on puzzles and crafts.
  • Say no when you are feeling overwhelmed. If the season is getting too hectic, it's OK to leave an event early or opt out altogether. Don't push yourself into a punishing schedule.
  • Consider a social media detox. The endless parade of photos of everyone else's cookie bakes, celebrations, carol sings, and other activities on your social media feed can make you feel sad. What you see on social media often is not real life. Take a break from it. 
  • Express your gratitude and put things into perspective. Focus on what is good in your life, your friends, your job, your home, the warm meal you have prepared.
  • Make a list of several things that you enjoy – going out into nature, reading, watching a favorite TV show. "Cope ahead" by planning few of those activities over the holidays.
  • Reach out for help. If you can't shake the blues, and they persist after the holidays, impacting your daily life, find a therapist or a support group. If you are struggling, call WellSpan Philhaven's access number, available 24/7, by calling 800-932-0359. Also, a new national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7 by calling 988.