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The Most Woeful Time of the Year: Understanding Tough Holidays and How to Get Through?
Why so many feel unhappy, stressed, and depressed during the holidays, and how to help get through them with your well-being intact.


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The holidays can be a difficult time of year. Learn how to take care of yourself before gathering with others.


If you find that your mood is consistently affected by feeling less-than, you may need to go on a social media diet.”
With its sparkly decorations, family traditions, and festive get-togethers, this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. But for many of us, the holidays are the most woeful time instead. During this period, breakups, overindulgence in alcohol, financial pressure, overall stress, and even mortality rates spike.

Sure, each holiday season comes with its bright spots and good memories, but if you still find yourself wishing you could just fast-forward through the next few months, youíre not alone. The truth is that the holidays are full of stressors and triggers that leave many of us feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or even unable to cope.

Before you resign yourself to another year of suffering from the holiday blues, I urge you to take a deep breath, smell the pine trees, and take control of what you can.

Often, you can influence your holiday experience more than you think. Itís all about identifying the factors that negatively affect your state of mind and making a conscious decision to avoid or minimize your exposure to those things.

Here, I spotlight eight factors that bring us down during the holidays and offer advice on how to deal with each one:

1. We force ourselves to spend time with nasty people. Your judgmental father-in-law. Your constantly one-upping cousin. Your critical frenemy. Your inappropriate coworker. Every holiday season, we voluntarily spend time with people like this in the name of fellowship, tradition, family, and the so-called "holiday spirit."

Every year, we tell ourselves that this year will be differentóweíll avoid the arguments and keep the mood friendly. But the truth is, if someone causes you anger or anxiety during the other 11 months of the year, itís unlikely that things will be any different at a family holiday lunch or office party. Go into the situation with realistic expectations and remember that your well-being (not being polite!) is your first priority. If you feel your agitation rising, say, "Excuse me," and walk away. Then talk to someone else. Help in the kitchen. Play with the dog. Or just ride off into the sunset. Making yourself miserable by engaging with a nasty person just isnít worth it.

2. The holidays remind us of loss. Maybe you were laid off from your job or have been diagnosed with a disease in the past yearóand youíre dreading the, "So, whatís new in your life?" questions youíll have to field at get-togethers. Or perhaps youíve lost a parent or been through a divorce and are depressed by the thought of facing the holidays alone.

No matter what youíve lostóyour health, a loved one, a job, or something elseóthe holidays tend to highlight whatís missing in your life. Unfortunately, thereís often no easy way to sidestep or dull the pain youíre feeling. As much as possible, enlist the support of your friends and family. Theyíll provide a listening ear, they may help run social interference, and theyíll understand if you just donít feel up to attending another party. Donít be afraid to seek professional help if youíre struggling, eitheróthereís absolutely no shame in reaching out.

3. We neglect our well-being. With so many holiday distractions and obligations, itís all too easy for well-being strategies to fall by the wayside. We tell ourselves weíll get back on the workout wagon, cut out the junk food, and catch up on our sleep after the new year, but those good intentions donít cause us to feel any less exhausted or irritable right now.

“If someone causes you anger or anxiety during the other 11 months of the year, itís unlikely that things will be any different at a family holiday lunch or office party.”

My best advice is to plan ahead. If you donít, that yoga class, healthy homemade meal, or eight hours of sleep wonít happen. Remember, if you arenít feeling your best physically or mentally, you wonít have the zest and purpose you need to enjoy the holidays. I suggest making a special effort to fit physical activity into your schedule. Research shows that a 20-minute brisk walk, or the equivalent, significantly improves mood for up to 12 hours, and exercise also improves the quality of your sleep.

4. We compare ourselves to everyone else. Of course this happens throughout the year, but weíre especially prone to dwell on what others have (and we donít) during this time of year. Maybe youíre going through a divorce, so spending time with your sister and her adoring husband makes you feel especially lonely. Or youíre struggling to make ends meet, so the fact that your best friend whisked his family off to the Bahamas makes you feel like a failure.

If you find that your mood is consistently affected by feeling less-than, you may need to go on a social media diet. I also encourage you to talk to someone elseówhether thatís a trusted friend, clergyperson, or counseloróabout what youíre feeling. Hopefully, this person can help you develop a healthier perspective by pointing out all the things you have to be proud of in your life. A focus on gratitude can be a game changer.

5. Unhealthy triggers are all around us. For better or worse, the holidays are known for buffet lines, blowout meals, and boozy toasts. In moderation, food and drink can enhance the festivities, but more often, overindulgence contributes to poor health, self-recrimination, bad moods, and even worse decisions. (Be honestóyouíd never have had last yearís awful argument with your brother if you hadnít both been drinkingÖ and you dread stepping on the scale after January 1st.)

When it comes to avoiding holiday overindulgence, mindfulness is key. Know what your triggers are and have a plan to manage or avoid those things. For instance, maybe you eat a healthy meal before heading to your friendís cocktail party, wear pants with an unforgiving waistband, or ask your spouse to cut you off after one or two drinksówhatever works for you! Just donít show up at eating-and-drinking events without a plan because your good intentions wonít last long in the face of temptation.

“It canít be said enough: Setting (and sticking to) a holiday budget can make this time of year so much more enjoyable.”

6. Itís cold and dark outside. Sure, you grumbled along with the rest of the country when it started to get dark before 6:00 p.m. and temperatures began to plummet, but you probably didnít give the season change much more thought. However, these factors can have a very real impact on your holiday mood.

Youíve probably heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can cause sufferers to feel depressed, moody, and lethargic during the winter months. SAD affects millions of Americans. Have you ever considered that you may be one of them? Even if youíre not, everyone benefits from being outdoors and getting sunlight, which boosts your serotonin levels.

7. We enjoy festivities, but we donít enjoy paying for them. If youíre overspending on gifts, parties, food, decorations, and more, you wonít feel very festive. Instead, youíll be brooding over your dwindling account balance and worrying about all of the bills youíll receive once the celebrations are over. You may even begin to resent others for "forcing" you to buy them presents or attend costly events.

It canít be said enough: Setting (and sticking to) a holiday budget can make this time of year so much more enjoyable. Figure out how much you can comfortably spend, identify priorities, and record each expenditure. Also, remember that money and value arenít necessarily synonymous. You might consider having a potluck with friends instead of exchanging gifts, or writing a heartfelt note of appreciation to family members.

8. The holidays can exacerbate depression or anxiety. If youíre suffering from clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, youíre struggling with a lot more than "just" the holiday blues. Typical holiday stressors can seem overwhelming, and the knowledge that youíre "supposed" to be carefree and happy can make you feel even worse.

“The holidays can certainly be a time of joy and happiness. The odds of that happening are highest when you go into the season with an awareness of what triggers stress and unhappiness for you.”

As someone who has struggled with severe depression, I canít stress enough how important it is that you prioritize your well-being above othersí expectations. With their social expectations and reminders of loss, the holidays can feel like a psychological minefield. Make sure you keep the lines of communication with your doctor or counselor open and try to discuss healthy coping mechanisms beforehand.

The holidays can certainly be a time of joy and happiness. The odds of that happening are highest when you go into the season with an awareness of what triggers stress and unhappiness for you. Take control of what you can to improve your health and well-being, whether that means limiting your social engagements, avoiding certain people or situations, or setting aside time to exercise each day. May the best in life, love, and happiness be ahead of you this holiday season!

Graeme Cowan is the author of "Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder". He is also a speaker who helps people build their resilience, well-being, and performance. Despite spending most of his career as a senior executive in Sydney, Australia, with organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and A.T. Kearney, Graeme had struggled with depression for more than 20 years. Graeme reemerged with not just a best-selling Australian book series to his name, but a new attitude toward the way individuals approach recovery. Cowan is also the author of the report "The Elephant in the Boardroom: Getting Mentally Fit for Work." Cowan is one of Australiaís leading speakers and authors in the area of building resilience and mental health. He is also a director of the R U OK? Foundation (www.ruokday.com). Sign up for his free 30-Day Mood Challenge at www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com.

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