The holidays are a joyful time for many people, but they can also be a difficult time for those dealing with grief, added stress and feelings of loneliness.
It might be the most wonderful time of the year, but it doesn’t always feel that way for those coping with loss, anxiety and depression.
Seasonal depression and the holiday blues are a real battle for many. Whether it’s extra stress, striving to live up to unrealistic expectations or even learning how to celebrate the holidays without a loved one, feelings of loneliness and tension can accompany the holiday season.
Julie Wolf, a licensed mental-health counselor at Hope Counseling Clinic in Winter Garden, said that she often sees people this time of year who are struggling with the loss of a loved one.
“From October to December … it’s just really hard,” Wolf said. “For whatever reason, too, I think with the added pressure and stress on families and marriages — there’s a lot of relationship strife, as well, this time of year. A lot of loss and trauma is stored in the part of the brain where our five senses experience. Any time we have a strong sensory experience … those tap right into those emotional memories.
“For a lot of people that have experienced something traumatic around the holidays, it’s like that one little segment of the year that’s very unique, and there’s so many sensory experiences,” Wolf said. “It can be sensory overload, which is 100% triggering.”
Add into the mix the societal norm of being busy and constantly connected. Just because the holidays come around, Wolf said, it doesn’t mean any of the day-to-day responsibilities many Americans carry with them lessens. Preparing for the holidays can add stress to our already busy lives.
“In addition, you’re buying gifts for every person that’s important in your life, plus there’s parties and different responsibilities,” she said. “It just multiplies the number of responsibilities, and so there’s just the mere limiting factor of time. We have the same amount of time during the holidays that we have the rest of the year.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people said in a survey they are affected by the holiday blues, and 24% said the holidays affect them a lot. Symptoms associated with the holiday blues include fatigue, tension, frustration, loneliness, sadness and a sense of loss.
Part of taking steps to beat the added stress of the holidays, Wolf said, is to be aware of what messages you’re telling yourself. There are many expectations, but it’s important to realize that it’s OK to not be perfect — and to recognize that you can’t do it all.
“Are you consciously telling yourself you have to do it all?” Wolf said. “I think on a practical level, you really have to focus on your needs as a person and not to neglect that just because there’s so many other things going on. …Be able to say no. You can’t do it all so you may have to say no to an event or to somebody that’s invited you to do something.
“Recognizing having healthy boundaries and people in your life that can be toxic is also important, as well as not pushing yourself beyond healthy limits to try to make other people happy, but also being aware of your own personal limitations,” she said. “You just have to realize that you have to do what you think is right, and people will like it or they won’t. I think the sooner that you can learn that, the more peace you’ll have in your life.”
In a culture that prizes being connected and on the go all the time, it’s easy to neglect your own needs. Wolf said that one of the things that makes people the most ill equipped to deal with both stress and emotional pain is being exhausted. She recommends ensuring that you’re getting enough rest, eating healthy foods and getting exercise.
In terms of grief, Wolf said, there is no right way to grieve. Some people want to lean into it and talk about and remember the person they lost. Others need space and distance and prefer to distract themselves from the feelings of loss. Wolf said that either way is OK, and it’s important to understand the person who grieves differently than another.
“A lot of people get really frustrated with themselves because they don’t know how long it should take (to grieve),” she said. “If you’re dealing with the loss of a very significant person in your life, you’re not going to be over it in a few months. It takes at least a year to be able to process each new event. It’s not just time that heals all wounds — that’s false. … Grieving properly the losses that you need to grieve over time is what will heal your heart.”
And for those who might feel guilty about allowing themselves to enjoy an event or the holiday season despite a loss, Wolf said, it’s important to give yourself permission to have a good time even though the person is no longer around.
“Sometimes you kind of feel guilty to really have fun and enjoy yourself — you feel like you’re betraying their memory or something,” she said. “Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel, positive or negative. … I think it’s OK to really focus on self-care and make that a priority, just embracing the fact that the holidays are going to be (a) difficult time and there’s really no way around that but to focus on the things like … being around people that love you.”