Managing Mental Well-Being during the Holidays

The holiday season is often advertised as the “season of joy and peace,” but for those with mental health challenges, it can be the exact opposite. Feelings of anxiety and depression can eclipse a time of merriment, especially if a person has had a difficult year with significant life changes such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce, relocating to a new city, family dysfunction, or other challenges. Alongside personal struggles, the holiday season comes with its own pressures, such as buying gifts, sending out greeting cards (or e-greeting cards), or fulfilling social obligations of attending or hosting gatherings with family, friends, and colleagues. The cold air and gloomy winter days can also affect a person’s mood, giving rise to seasonal depression in some people.

Seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a clinical disorder triggered by the onset of winter. It usually improves with the arrival of spring. Although the exact causes for SAD are unknown, researchers suspect lack of sunlight plays a prominent role. As days become shorter, exposure to less sunlight leads to low serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that also acts as a hormone, regulates memory, happiness, learning abilities, sleep, hunger, body temperature, and sexual behavior. Low serotonin levels interrupt the body’s regular functions, including the circadian rhythm (body clock), disrupting sleep patterns. Lack of physical rest can give rise to mood changes and fatigue. Individuals affected by SAD experience symptoms similar to depression. For some, the symptoms may be short-lived; for others, they may be debilitating. A mild form of SAD is sometimes called “winter blues.” Exposure to sunlight also aids the body’s natural production of vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin required for strong bones, teeth, and immunity. Lack of vitamin D may affect a person’s overall well-being. According to the Cleveland Clinic, five percent of adults are affected by SAD in the United States.

Symptoms of SAD include:

  • fatigue
  • feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • loss of interest
  • insomnia or hypersomnia
  • weight gain
  • lack of concentration
  • social withdrawal
  • suicidal ideation

Symptoms of SAD may begin with the arrival of fall and peak during the holidays. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the months of January and February tend to be the most challenging for people diagnosed with SAD. Individuals at increased risk for developing SAD include women and those between the ages of 18 and 30. People with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia are also at a higher risk for developing SAD. The teen brain fully develops in the mid-to-late 20s, which makes navigating symptoms of SAD a daunting task for teenagers. Omnigraphics’ Mental Health Information for Teens provides information on recognizing and treating anxiety and other mood and personality disorders.

Beating the Winter Blues

Identify what matters to you most. Is it spending quality time with your family? Is it traveling to new places? Is it staying home with a few friends for a low-key meal? Is it hosting elaborate parties? Ask yourself similar questions to determine how you want to spend your holidays. Overcommitting to gatherings may create anxiety and stress that take the joy out of them and leave you exhausted. Lack of adequate rest can have a negative effect on both mental and physical health. When you clearly identify your priorities, it becomes easier to turn down invitations that may undermine your well-being.

Plan activities that promote your mental well-being. Holiday gatherings can be a difficult time for those with dysfunctional family dynamics. Activities such as staying in to watch a movie, reading a good book, or picking up a hobby can provide breaks from challenging social obligations and be great mood-lifters. Some people enjoy a good walk despite the cold weather or visit their favorite local coffee shops or restaurants. Set aside time for yourself and plan activities you enjoy the most to balance stressful ones.

Prepare a budget for buying gifts. The social obligation of gift-giving can be a stressful task. Without preparing a budget, it is easy to overspend. To avoid this mistake, prepare a list of people you want to buy gifts for and set a budget you are comfortable with before going shopping. Handmade gifts can be a meaningful alternative to expensive commercial items. You can also set some finances aside to contribute to family gatherings.

Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly. The temptation to overindulge during the holidays may lead to unhealthy eating habits. Plan and incorporate healthy meals between festive gatherings. A meal prep service can be a helpful option to keep you on track if you struggle with a lack of time. Following a regular exercise routine can help manage stress and maintain personal wellness. Exercise releases hormones such as dopamine and endorphins, which help relieve stress and contribute toward improved mental and physical health. Getting some sunlight, taking short walks, and incorporating vitamin D supplements into your diet can also be beneficial.

Connect with friends, family, and community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social connectedness directly influences our minds, bodies, and behaviors, improving overall well-being. Research from reputable organizations such as the APA points toward a connection between loneliness and higher anxiety and depression. Holidays can amplify feelings of loneliness, so take some time out to meet up with friends and family. For those living far away from family, volunteering in local community programs can be an excellent way to experience connectedness. Holidays can be particularly tough for those grieving the death of a loved one. Although isolating oneself to avoid dampening the mood for others might seem like a good idea, it is better to connect with family and share stories about the loved one to remember and celebrate their life and legacy.

More information on mental illness and healthy brain function is covered in Omnigraphics’ Mental Health Disorders Sourcebook. The holiday season might weigh heavier on those with mental health issues than the others. The stigma around the topic of mental health and fear of being discriminated against may hinder people from admitting they need help. Talking with a trusted friend can be the first step toward seeking professional assistance. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or visit their website.

Seeking Help and Support

Crisis hotlines and resources

Mental Health America

National Alliance on Mental Illness

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