Why the Holidays “Bum You Out” and What to Do About It

We are about to enter one of the darkest times of the year — and ironically are expected to feel great about it. I’m talking about the period from just before Thanksgiving through January 1st, also known by therapists as “six weeks from hell” for a good part of their clientele. But while the therapeutic community knows it is a tough time, much of the rest of the world works hard to look upbeat despite suffering inside.

What’s going on?

1. Fall and Winter. Things are dying. Nature is cold and wet, not warm and bright. Driving takes longer and is more dangerous. Days grow shorter until December 21st.

2. If you are looking for work, you are entering the season of waiting for the New Year when, you hope, job openings and hiring will begin again. Waiting is rarely easy.

3. People have less time for you and you have less time for yourself. Holiday gifts must be chosen, crowds must be endured, parties must be planned, food must be purchased and prepared. Budgets get stretched. Planes are costlier; while airports, train stations, and roads are more crowded. Lines are longer.

4. You dread the fact that you will have to see Uncle Ralph and Aunt Matilda over the holidays. Your uncle will drink too much and make dirty jokes that aren’t funny and your aunt will criticize your homemaking, while you are expected to smile through it all and be a good host or hostess.

5. TV and the Internet shall offer inescapable images of other people having a wonderful time, a striking contrast to your own existence. You can begin to feel that you — you alone — are out of the mainstream; and that the world really doesn’t care. This will be particularly hard to endure if you are without someone who recently was important in your life or if your social options are limited.

6. Many therapists go on vacation at this time of year (“Those SOBs!”), leaving their patients feeling abandoned.

7. You might begin to ask yourself where the year went, reflecting on all the things you hoped to do that somehow didn’t get done. The media will remind you of New Year’s Resolutions that you failed to enact and encourage you to make more of them.

8. Much about the holidays involves shopping, surely one of the emptiest, most soul-slaying activities ever invented. Yes, it can give you a “sugar rush,” but it is one that usually leaves you emptier after the thrill of purchase is over than you were before.

9. New Year’s Day — especially if you failed to get a date for New Year’s Eve — offers the possibility of capping the season in a truly miserable state. You will have a full 24 hours with nothing to do but reflect on your existence, compare yourself to all those people in sunny California having a good time at the Rose Parade, and look in the mirror and realize (to quote Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable) that

…every year you get to look less and less like the little kid with the diaper and the banner across his chest and more and more like the old guy with the beard and the hourglass and the scythe.

What to do?

First, realize that there are tons of people like you who are suffering silently — who don’t want anyone to see them in their unhappiness at a time of the year when everyone is “supposed to be” happy, and when lots of people are faking it.

Second, remember that if you don’t have someone to spend the holidays with, many people will be welcoming if only they are informed that you would be open to an invitation. Yes, it can be embarrassing to admit your lack of holiday plans, but it could lead to having a nice time.

Third, find activities to fill your day, even if it is organizing your photo collection. Shelters and soup kitchens where you might volunteer will remind you that there are usually people who are worse off (and more cut-off from the world) than you are. And you could discover, as some psychologists suggest, that giving does actually feel better than receiving, and make you feel better at a difficult time of year.

Fourth, if you sense your mood dipping as you enter this period you might consider calling your MD and asking for antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. Most general practitioners are comfortable with prescribing these if they know you well. Many of the antidepressants can take a few weeks to have a positive effect, but the anti-anxiety drugs generally have a more immediate impact.

Fifth, recognize that the holidays will pass and that you’ve probably endured them (and things that are worse) before.

Sixth, if your mood typically plummets during the dark months, you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The use of a “light box” to provide you with the full spectrum of light found out-of-doors can provide relief. Have this possibility evaluated.

Seventh, avoid relying on drugs or alcohol to deal with the holiday blues. Whatever immediate benefit they might provide, they can quickly make things worse. Take care too, that your nutritional intake not be thrown out of whack by too many parties and big dinners; perhaps also, your exercise schedule. Get back on the track in all senses.

Eighth, make a list of those things that you are grateful for. Things you take for granted — the health of your children, the roof over your head, a good book, and even a single friend — can help you reframe your current condition.

Ninth, take some time to plan activities for January and February. Once the “low-grade frenzy” of the holidays is over, there may be an anticlimactic let-down. Without preparation and a return to normal social contact, the weather-challenged months of the early part of the year can be much too quiet.

Finally, you might want to read a portion of a benediction by William Sloane Coffin. Take it as a holiday wish for you, whether or not you have religious faith:

May God give you grace never to sell yourself short.
Grace to risk something big for something good.
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for
anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.
So may God take your minds, and think through them.
May God take your lips, and speak through them.
May God take your hearts, and set them on fire.
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The top image is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The second comes from a Wikimedia Commons post of a 1910 New Year’s Post Card by Frances Brundage.