The holidays are tough on everyone, but they can be especially hard on someone dealing with depression or anxiety or substance abuse. An online poll taken by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that three-quarters of poll respondents reported feeling either “very anxious and/or depressed” or “just a little bit more anxious and/or depressed than usual” during the holidays.
According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, women appear to be more affected by holiday stress than men, with 44 percent of the women in the survey reporting heightened stress levels during the holidays compared with 31 percent of the men. And it doesn’t help any that the holidays occur in late fall/early winter, when the days are shorter and we’re exposed to the least amount of sunlight, contributing to depression linked with seasonal affective disorder.
But there’s good news about the holidays: The myth that suicides are more prevalent during the holiday season simply isn’t true. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, America’s suicide rate is actually the lowest in December, with peak suicide rates occurring during the spring and fall.
How to Keep Your Holiday Expectations in Check
How the holidays affect you can have as much to do with your expectations as the holidays themselves. Which means while you may not be able to control holiday outcomes, you can control how you feel about — and react to — outcomes by managing your holiday expectations in these five ways:
- Don’t buy into idealized holiday notions. That holiday special where everyone is enjoying a “Hallmark moment,” singing carols in the softly falling snow? That’s a TV show. The snow is made out of plastic, and if you’re comparing your holidays to scripted ones with professional actors being directed on Hollywood soundstages, you’re setting yourself up for inevitable disappointment.
“When people are bombarded with commercials, greeting cards, and movies showing perfect families and friendships, they may start to question the quality of their own relationships,” said Adam K. Anderson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, in an interview with Shape magazine. “This can make people feel lonely and less fulfilled.”
Life isn’t perfect, and holidays are part of life. Embrace their imperfections.
- Be OK with celebrating your own way, even if it’s unconventional. One Thanksgiving, about fifteen years ago, I found myself all alone — just my dog and me — with no dinner invitation. Rather than feeling sorry for myself and spending the day drinking while watching football, I decided to take my dog for a hike in the mountains instead. We had a great time, and on the way home I stopped at a truck stop and had a turkey platter at the counter while enjoying an interesting conversation with the waitress stuck working that day. I now look back fondly on that day as one of the best Thanksgivings of my life. But it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t adjusted my expectations of what a “real” Thanksgiving was supposed to be.
- Make it acceptable to limit the number of engagements you attend. Count yourself lucky if you’re invited to a lot of holiday celebrations. But holiday get-togethers can be time consuming, stressful and even terrifying if you suffer from social anxiety disorder. Decide how many events you can reasonably make and tolerate, and stick to that number rather than spreading yourself too thin. Ask yourself this: If a holiday celebration or tradition is causing you more stress than joy, is it really worth attending or keeping?
- Know that it’s possible to enjoy the holidays without alcohol or drugs. “Taking the edge off” with a few drinks during the holiday season can quickly get out of hand. If you’re in recovery, it can be incredibly tempting to use alcohol or drugs when everyone else around you is using, too. And if you suffer from anxiety or depression, it’s tempting to turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate during the holidays. But the holidays can be endured and even enjoyed while sober. Millions of people do it every year, so why can’t you be one of them?
- Don’t expect family members to be different because it’s the holidays. One of the biggest stressors during the holidays is getting together with family and quickly realizing why it is that you only see them during the holidays. But you can only be you, so let go of any preconceived notions of how you’d like them to be. That judgmental relative across the table making disparaging remarks about your lifestyle won’t be around forever, so do your best to enjoy their company and pass them the potatoes with a smile.
The holidays don’t have to be a time of year that you dread and have to endure — or that drive you to drink or use drugs. By managing what you expect of them, not being attached to results, and being open to alternative and non-traditional forms of celebration, you can make this time of year not only one you’re okay with, but one you actually look forward to.
By Sean P. Egen