No matter what your faith or cultural background, as the holiday season approaches, you may notice, as many people do, that instead of feeling a sense of warm anticipation, you feel a sense of dread. The media is advertising things you can do and buy that are “guaranteed” to make your holidays more meaningful and jolly. You notice that others are bustling about on holiday errands and missions of good will. Why do you feel so bad? And what can you do about it? In this column, I will share some of the reasons that some people find that this “joyous” season falls far short of expectations, and ideas on how you can help yourself to feel better.

Short Days and Long Nights

Do you notice that as the daylight shortens through the fall and into the winter, you feel sadder and more fatigued? You may have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. You lack motivation and have a difficult time experiencing pleasure. Your self-esteem plummets. To make matters worse, you may crave sweets and, as you give in to these cravings, your clothes become tighter and tighter.

In recent years, the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is related to lack of light through the eyes, has become widely accepted as a cause of this malaise. The good news is that it is often easily relieved, sometimes quickly, and more often gradually, over a period of weeks by increasing exposure to natural and full spectrum light sources.

What Can You Do to Help Yourself?

  1. See your health care provider. If she or he does not have expertise in addressing Seasonal Affective Disorder, ask for a referral to someone that does have this expertise. Naturopathic physicians and other health care providers are often helpful sources of information on SAD.
  2. Increase your exposure to natural light. Get outdoors for at least half an hour each day—more if possible—even on cloudy and stormy days. Taking a walk or getting some other kind of exercise while you are outdoors will help you feel better as well. Although window glass is said to block 50 percent of the light, if you must be indoors, spend your time near windows.
  3. Replace fluorescent light bulbs in your home and workspace with grow lights or “full spectrum” bulbs that are available in most hardware stores. They are more expensive than regular bulbs, but well worth the expense.
  4. Use a specially designed light box. Many people find that they benefit from this. I have used one for years and find it is absolutely essential—well worth the initial expense. Light box options and information on how they are used can be found through an Internet search.
  5. Take good care of yourself in every way. Focus on eating healthy food. Instead of eating those sweets that you crave, eat healthy meals that contain lots of fresh vegetables, including root vegetables. Limit your intake of sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Get plenty of exercise. Do things you enjoy. Arrange to spend lots of time with loving family members and friends.

Too Much To Do, Not Enough Time

As the holidays approach, your expectations of what you will do or need to do may increase. The expectations that others have of you may increase as well. For instance, there may be foods you have always been responsible for cooking, gifts you are expected to buy and decorating to do, as well as obligations in your place of worship and the community. You may also want to be part of outreach to others who are less fortunate. At some point you begin to feel totally overwhelmed. What can you do?

  1. Assess the things you have planned to do over the next month or two. Write them down. Check off those that you really enjoy and that are most meaningful to you. For instance, if you always get together with your sister whom you see only once a year on a certain day, that may be very important to you. But writing holiday greeting cards may feel like an overwhelming chore. Then, stop doing those things that you don’t check, the things that you least enjoy. You may want to confer with family members as you change these plans. When I first did this—stopped making holiday cookies and breads—I thought I would hear all kinds of complaints from my adult children. They barely noticed!
  2. Be creative about gift giving. If gift giving is part of your holiday tradition that you want to keep, and you find the crowds, lines, and time difficult to manage, you might consider shopping through catalogues and the Internet. Your family might be willing to exchange simple handmade gifts rather than the more costly and labor-intensive purchased gifts. Another option would be for each family member to choose one other person they will buy a gift for, insuring that everyone receives a gift without this being a hassle for anyone. If your gift giving includes gifts for members of other families like aunts, uncles and cousins, you may want to consider one family gift, rather than individual gifts for each person.
  3. Be ready when others ask you to do things. Avoid saying “yes” right away. Instead say, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” Then consider carefully if this is something you really want to do before you say yes.
  4. Take time to relax without feeling guilty about it. Play some music you love. Take off your shoes. Loosen your clothing. Lean back. Spend the next few minutes, or an hour or two, doing absolutely nothing. You deserve this time to yourself!
  5. Check out any new physical and emotional symptoms or any that have worsened. Don’t delay getting health care because you are too busy, you think these symptoms will go away after the holidays or that you just have “the holiday blues.” The stress, cold and darkness of the winter season make everyone more vulnerable to illness.

Life Changes and Bad Memories

Troubling incidents that affect your memories of holidays in the past, like a parent’s Christmas alcoholic binges, or extreme poverty when you were a child, and losses in your life, like divorce or the death of friends and family members, become even more difficult to deal with at this time of year. While there is no way to make these issues go away, there are some general guidelines for dealing with the holidays that you may find helpful. They usually involve taking back control over your life by thinking about what you really want to do and doing it—even if others don’t like it.

  1. Ask yourself the following questions: “Would doing things differently this year help? Is there some way you could change your holiday plans so they would be easier for you and others? Instead of sharing in the traditional family festivities, would it be easier to take a vacation or do some other activity that is not related to the holiday? Is it time to develop some new family traditions? Would you prefer avoiding the holidays altogether, pretending they weren’t happening?”
  2. Spend time with the people you like. Are there some people you spend time with over the holidays whom you would rather avoid, like an ex-spouse or a difficult brother? If so, make your plans so you will not be with that person or people—and don’t feel guilty about it. Make plans to spend time with people who you really like and enjoy, people who help you feel good about yourself.
  3. Consider spending some time with a counselor you trust or a very good friend, talking about the issues in your life that make the holidays difficult for you. Tell them you just need to talk about it and that you don’t expect them to give advice or fix the situation. You will be pleasantly surprised at how good that feels—to just talk without interruption for 10 or 15 minutes or even an hour. If you do this with a good friend, be sure to return the favor by listening to them without interruption for an equal amount of time.
  4. Do lots of things you enjoy during this time. Start by making a list of things you really enjoy doing. Add to the list as other things occur to you. Things like making music, singing, dancing, making crafts, cooking, painting, fishing, playing basketball or reading mysteries. Post this list in a convenient place—perhaps on your refrigerator door. Then spend some time each day doing one or more of these things.
  5. Do something nice for someone else. You will be surprised at how good that makes you feel. You could visit a patient at a nursing home, read books to children at a school or library, take a child to a holiday event, buy a special gift for someone who is less fortunate, invite a special friend to dinner, smile at people on the street, or talk to clerks at the check-out counter.

Happy Holidays!

Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D. is an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate, as well as the developer of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). To learn more about her books, such as the popular The Depression Workbook and Wellness Recovery Action Plan, her other writings, and WRAP, please visit her website, Mental Health Recovery and WRAP. Reprinted here with permission.