Why Do I Feel So Bummed Around the Holidays? A Psychologist Explains

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During this ever-festive time of year, I often find myself mourning the way I experienced it as a child: the feverish anticipation as I counted down the days to Christmas, the flour that perpetually dusted our kitchen during the month of December, the sparkle of New Year's Eve. I still love the holidays, but that visceral, all-consuming joy has been muted somewhat by the realities of adulthood. If anything, I find myself feeling more anxious this time of year—and the struggle to recapture that sense of wonder doesn't exactly help.

I'm not alone in facing the holiday blues. "Psychotherapists work a lot this time of year," says Heather Silvestri, a New York–based psychologist. "In addition to any seasonal affective changes that December ushers in, the holiday season can cue people's anxiety and sadness in a pretty intense way."

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A lot of it, she says, comes down to a breach between expectation versus reality. We might hope, for example, that our time with family will be warm and fuzzy, only to be disappointed when old patterns inevitably come into play. Or—as in my case—we anticipate the unmitigated holiday cheer that we felt as kids, only for a busy work calendar, expenses, and travel stresses to water it down.

"Basically, the holidays ratchet up our expectations, wishes, and hopes," says Silvestri. "When reality comports, it's magical. However, sometimes people are left foundering in the gap between what they hoped the holidays would bring and their actual experiences."

This can feel particularly salient when you're seated at the holiday dinner table discussing your relationship status with a nosy aunt or slipping into old arguments with your brother. "There is an enormous amount of what I would call 'relational pressure' during the holidays," adds Silvestri. "The parties, family gatherings, and gift-giving all spotlight the number, value, and health of our relationships in ways more pronounced than is typical the rest of the year."

It doesn't help that 'tis the season to examine your life through a microscope—whether you're providing updates to childhood friends or hashing out your resolutions for the coming year. Insecurities and anxieties about how we're doing are bound to surface, and they can often feel downright overwhelming.

Is it even possible to negotiate all of this and still maintain some semblance of good cheer? Silvestri offers a resounding "yes"—and names her go-to strategy below.

How to beat the holiday blues

It's the nature of anxiety to pull our brain in a million directions—which leaves little room for the happiness of the present moment. That's why the ultimate antidote is simply training our brains to focus on the present moment. If you don't have a mindfulness practice, making a list of what you're grateful for—as corny as it sounds—is a great way to start. "Gratitude anchors us in the present, so anxiety falls away," explains Silvestri. "It guides us to value what we have, so sadness over what's missing becomes unnecessary."

Of course, doubling down on any rituals that help you feel grounded is immensely helpful as well, whether it's yoga or other moderate exercise, journaling, or meditation. "Every bit of mindfulness you inject into your holiday mindset is golden," she adds. "Perhaps the truest holiday spirit is that which allows you to reground yourself in the present moment and be grateful for whatever it offers."

Because in truth, the holiday joy that we feel so nostalgic for never really went anywhere—as adults, it's just easier to focus on everything else going on in our lives. "The true gems of the season lie within you and reside in your ability to engage a mindful approach to any holiday activity," says Silvestri. "Mindfulness is probably the best gift you can give yourself for the holidays."

Next up: 7 ways mindfulness literally changes your brain.