The Holidays Can Be a Really Tough Time—These Mental Health Tips Will Help

While we'd like to believe the holidays are all candy canes, good food, and snowflakes, that's not always the case. It'd be ignorant for us to assume this time of year isn't difficult in more aspects than one for a huge amount of people. Seeing family brings up a lot of issues, of course, whether that's fighting, strained relationships, or recent breakups. Couple that with alcohol and you've got a recipe for possible disaster—especially when you suffer from depression and anxiety. While feelings of stress and sadness can happen to anyone (we'll get into more intricate differences below), it's important to learn how best to cope and when to seek professional help.

Carrie Carlton, the clinical director at Beachway Therapy Center, says, "Those who are alcoholics, addicts, or already suffer from mood disorders are more likely than those who don't fit these categories to suffer from holiday stress or anxiety." Through her work with Beachway Therapy, an in-patient rehab, Carlton sees an uptick in clients who check in over the holidays for treatment. Below, find ways to better understand how you're feeling, why you're feeling it, and the best ways to cope.

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Why do the holidays trigger anxious and depressive feelings?

An increase in family events, pressure to be happy, and financial stress during this time often cause tension, resentment, and an overextended social calendar, leaving you feeling stressed, overcommitted, and burdened with anxiety about budgets, arguments, and your relationship with your relatives. Then, there are trips, childcare, gifts, and social media to contend with. Pressure arises from TV commercials, beach photos, and the fear of missing out on those things. New Year's, for example, is a night of expectations, one in which you can be made to feel less adequate if you're not doing something spectacular. During this time, we fixate on what we didn't accomplish and have anxiety about sticking to resolutions for the coming year. "Holidays can add to the stress or sadness you feel during the regular year," Sanam Hafeez, an NYC-based clinical psychologist, says. She notes that there's an influx of triggering feeling, events, and people who can add to the depression and anxiety you may usually feel, compounding those feelings and making them feel greater and more difficult to escape. Hafeez isolates three main components for why this tends to happen during this time of year: 

1. Perfectionism

"We feel like our holidays should look like something out of a Hallmark movie," Hafeez offers. "The quest to have the perfectly decorated tree, an Instagram-worthy holiday card, festive clothes, and gourmet-tasting home-cooked meals can put people over the edge."

2. Loneliness

"For those who don't have the time or money to travel to be with family or good friends," Hafeez says, "being alone during the holidays can cause feelings of isolation and abandonment."

3. Lack of Sunlight

"The darkness of winter really does affect some people's moods," Hafeez explains. "Sadness, anxiousness, a loss of interest in activities, and/or sleeping more every winter could be a sign of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD)," she says. "An estimated 10% to 20% of people in the U.S. experience a mild form of winter-onset SAD, and it seems to be more common in women."

How can you tell the difference between stressful or sad feelings and something more serious?

From the outside looking in, it can be difficult to spot the differences between stress and anxiety and when to seek professional help. "Both can lead to sleepless nights, exhaustion, excessive worry, lack of focus, and irritability," explains Carlton. "Even physical symptoms—including rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and headaches—can impact both people experiencing stress and those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder." With symptoms that can appear interchangeable, make sure to watch out for the below, according to Hafeez:

1. Irritability

2. Loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable to you

3. Hopelessness

4. Persistent thoughts of something bad happening

5. Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts

6. In very severe cases, psychotic symptoms (such as hallucinations or delusions)

7. Inability to take care of yourself, such as making sure to eat, bathe, or fulfill family or work responsibilities

How can you prevent these feelings and best cope while you're going through it?

1. Make plans in advance.

"This way, you know how and with whom your holidays will be spent," suggests Hafeez. "Uncertainty and putting off decision-making add enormous stress," she says. Instead, shop early and allow time to wrap and mail packages to avoid the shopping crunch.

2. Ask for help.

Whether it be from your friends, family members, co-workers, or other loved ones. "Women tend to think they have to do everything, when a team effort can be more fun and easier on your mind," says Hafeez.

3. Be open.

"Shame prevents people from being open about gift-giving when they can't afford it," says Hafeez. "Instead of struggling to buy a gift, be open about your financial situation and show how much you care in other ways. "That intimate moment will relieve your stress and nourish you both," says Hafeez.

4. Don't allow perfectionism to wear you down.

"Remember it's being together and goodwill that matter," says Hafeez. Try removing Instagram from your phone or staying off the internet for your entire time off. It'll help more than you know.

5. Don't isolate yourself.

"Reach out to others who also may be lonely," recommends Hafeez. "If you don't have someone to be with, volunteer to help those in need. It can be very uplifting and gratifying." You'll be glad you did it.