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Keep calm and carry on during the holidays

Main Line Health November 4, 2015 General Wellness By Paula Durlofsky, PhD

The holidays are fast upon us and, in the blink of an eye, Thanksgiving day, Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve will have already come and gone. Along with the holiday season comes much time spent with family from near and far, preparing and making elaborate holiday dinners and parties, buying expensive gifts to show loved one how much we care and decorating our homes. We may even find ourselves up late into the night baking cookies for our children’s teachers, our neighbors, and our co-workers and supervisors.

There’s no denying that despite the holidays being a special time to reconnect with family and friends, many of us will be dealing with holiday related anxiety and depression. With the kind of expectations we pile upon ourselves, it is no surprise that we are more prone to depression, anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness and exhaustion around the holidays. And asking for help, even when not during the holiday season, is difficult for many of us to do. Setting unrealistic expectations and putting pressure on ourselves to make the holidays “picture perfect” for our children, spouses, extended family and friends sets us up for feeling this way.

Other major sources of holiday-related anxiety and depression are family conflicts, divorce, complicated blended family dynamics, and recent deaths of loved ones. Special family members who have died or who cannot be with us because of divorce, family strife or distance all brings about profound feelings of anxiety, grief and mourning.

It is important not to ignore depression and anxiety related to the holidays. Taking positive steps towards minimizing unnecessary holiday-related stress increases our chances of having a happier and healthier holiday season. In most cases, holiday-related depression and anxiety can be lessened by striking a healthy balance between our expectations and our realities.

Below are a few tips that I hope you will find helpful for reducing depression and anxiety this holiday season:

  • Evaluate your holiday expectations – Decide which expectations are achievable and which are not. If you are working full-time and caring for young children, or caring for aging parents, volunteering to cook a large holiday dinner may not be doable, especially if you also want to enjoy it.
  • Be present when you are with your loved ones – Put away cell phones, computers, and other distractions so you can focus on the people that mean the most to you.
  • Be sure to get enough sleep – Research suggests that seven to nine hours of sleep a night significantly improves our ability to regulate our mood and improves our thinking and decision-making skills.
  • Delegate responsibility – Try to anticipate when and what you will need help with. Ask for help in advance. This will, decrease your chance of setting yourself up for feeling frantic and overwhelmed. For example, ask your family to help you with cooking and clean-up. This is also a great opportunity for connecting and spending time together.
  • Make time for exercise – Exercising for 30 minutes a day, a minimum of three days per week, has consistently been shown to improve mood, sleep, and to reduce anxiety.
  • Set aside differences – Try to accept family members and friends as they are. When possible, set aside another time to sort out family conflicts and grievances.
  • Stick to a budget – Before buying all your gifts decide on a budget that’s right for you. Don’t feel guilty if your budget does not allow for elaborate gifts. Remember that love and happiness cannot be bought with an avalanche of gifts.
  • Seek professional help if you need it – Despite your best efforts, if you find yourself still feeling sad, anxious, having physical complaints and unable to sleep talk to a mental health professional.

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.