When most people think of the holidays, they picture a warm, fuzzy time for celebrating old memories and creating new ones.
For the record, if you’re one of these people, you’re not alone, says Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., author of Hack Your Anxiety. The holidays can be a lot to deal with, she says, and there are a few reasons why the holidays may be especially tough for you.
1. You have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Technically, SAD is no longer considered a mental illness under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is the guidebook used by used by doctors and mental health professionals to diagnose psychiatric illnesses.
It is, however, considered something that can influence major depression, along with changes in appetite, sleep, or concentration, tearfulness, fatigue, and hopelessness, Clark says. “That said, the limited daylight, the cold, and the grey weather of winter can be understandable burdens to our mood and wellbeing,” she adds.
If you already suffer from major depression and know that you tend to struggle even more around the holidays, talk to your doctor about ways to manage your symptoms when the cold weather blows in. Also, consider buying an artificial light. “Artificial lights can be seriously helpful in giving just a bit of mood boost when the days are short, and the sun is low or too often hidden behind clouds,” Clark says.
2. There’s a lot of pressure to get sh*t done.
Okay, seriously-why are the holidays so much work? You have to decorate your place, buy gifts, bake, and go to a bunch of parties (some fun, some...not), among the normal life things you already have to do-and those additional expectations can really take a toll on some people.
“These expectations can drive us to push to our limits, and sometimes beyond,” Clark says. “How we handle this extra pressure matters when it comes to our mental health, and not everyone can pull this off without some sort of fallout.”
It may simply be that you need to start telling people “no” or try to delegate some things to others. “To help channel anxiety productively, make sure to notice where you are in control, even if it is simply in how you think about something,” Clark says. “Your mother in law might ‘volunteer’ you to host a complicated family affair, but you get to decide how you will think about it and how you will do it. Make whatever tasks you dive into yours in every way possible. This will help you maintain a healthy attitude, and maximal effectiveness.”
3. You have past trauma that happened around the holidays.
Not everyone has cozy memories of the holidays and having a past trauma-like a sexual assault, breakup, or losing a loved one around this time-can make the holidays especially tough.
“If this is a particularly sensitive time of year, take note of the vulnerability and protect it,” Clark says. “Make space to honor the memory of what happened, but gently nudge your awareness toward survival and growth.”
It’s important to recognize that the past will always shape how you view things, but it doesn’t dictate the choices you make now, she says. “If you are wrestling with the heightened anxiety of a past trauma, acknowledge its reality and impact, but do your best to refocus on today, and your choices now,” Clark says.
4. You’re just plain lonely.
The holidays are a great time to be with the people you love, but that’s not always possible for everyone. Maybe you recently went through a bad breakup or you live too far away from your family to get together during this time. Whatever it is, it can be tough to deal with.
It’s easy to spend a lot of time wishing that things could be different, but that actually doesn’t help you out at all, Clark points out. Instead, “if you are feeling the anxiety of loneliness, use its signal and energy to connect with loved ones, and forge new connections,” Clark says.
That can mean baking cookies with your mom over FaceTime or taking your BFF up on her offer to spend the holidays with her family. “Focusing on the choices we have (including how we think about things) can help channel our anxieties into solutions,” Clark says.
5. You feel like you should be happy-even when you're not.
Cruise your Instagram feed and you’ll see a bunch of smiling people who are positively stoked to be decorating the tree, drinking peppermint mochas, and doing pretty much everything else that’s associated with the holidays.
But…that’s a lot of pressure to be at your best 24/7 and to make the most of every moment. “Other people’s expectations can exert pressure, but so can expectations of ourselves,” Clark says. “If managing anxiety and stress is already a challenge, the extra pressure of the holidays are likely to further strain your coping, making everything feel a bit more difficult.”
This is when it’s crucial to mind your expectations, Clark says. “What really matters, and what can you cut out? Tuning into what really matters at the holidays can help keep you sane,” she says. Ditto for taking good care of yourself. Getting regular sleep, keeping your alcohol and sugar intake in check, and exercising regularly can go a long way toward making you feeling better, she says.
Still, if you feel like you’ve tried to turn things around for the holidays and nothing is working, it’s a good idea to check in with a mental health professional. “You don’t have to go it alone,” Clark says.