For children, it makes complete sense that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Your excitement builds up as all the decorations come out and you count down the days to Christmas. You have nothing to worry about, apart from whether you’re on Santa’s naughty or nice list.
For some adults, however, the holidays can be decidedly less magical. Though Christmas is supposed to be a season of cheer, others find themselves feeling inexplicably melancholy. While there are no studies proving that depression increases in December, American surveys suggest that the holiday blues are a real thing.
When asked about whether their number of clients increases during the holidays, Dr. Harry Trinidad and psychologist Teddi Dizon—both founding partners of Better Steps Psychology—say this is somewhat true. Paradoxically, the fact that you’re supposed to be happy during Christmas can actually bring some people down.
“The holidays carry cultural, social, relational expectations that sometimes put people in a position of evaluating how close or far they actually feel from what they think they're supposed to feel during this time. It's a time when the unhealthy tendency of comparing oneself with others or against a standard manifests more significantly,” Dizon says. “This is especially hard for people who have spent a lot of effort compartmentalizing personal, family, and other problems—the holidays put pressure that tend to trigger or bring these issues to the fore.”
“The latter months of the year tend to make people think about the year that’s about to end,” Dr. Trinidad adds. “For some people, they may realize that some missteps in the past months may be due to some issues that they would like to resolve. This leads them to seek counseling to help them figure out what has been going on and may be help them prepare for the coming new year.”
Some people also experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the holidays. “It is a condition associated with depressive symptoms and possibly increased anxiety that is brought on by seasonal patterns,” Dr. Trinidad explains. “Although more common in countries with four seasons, the longer nights during the holiday months can produce similar, if milder, effects.”
We've all been there, Charlie Brown.
Others simply get stressed by the holiday rush: all the presents they have to buy, the parties they have to attend, and the nosy relatives asking obnoxious questions, not to mention holiday traffic.
If you think what you’re feeling is just plain old holiday stress, Dr. Clifford Lazarus says it helps to take a breather—accept fewer party invitations, and buy fewer presents for fewer people. Order online instead of rushing around the mall, and use the time to get a massage or do something similarly relaxing.
Dr. Lazarus also recommends increasing your dopamine levels by getting more exercise or doing good deeds, like volunteering for a feeding program or helping to throw a party for underprivileged kids. Not only will helping others improve your mood, it will also help you remember the real reason for the season.
But if you sense that there’s something more to your melancholy, both Dr. Trinidad and Dizon say that self-awareness is key to feeling better. “Being able to properly identify your feelings is a big step in starting to cope with them,” Dr. Trinidad explains. “You can start to understand and clarify the thoughts that are linked to these feelings. From there, you can share and discuss these thoughts with trained professionals or even just loved ones so that you can have an outlet to share these thoughts and feelings and not keep them inside.”
“Once you are more clear about your thoughts and feelings and can properly express and share them with others, you can start to gain an understanding of how your mind processes certain issues and how and why you are like that. These are the things that can be brought up and worked with during sessions with professional counselors.”