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  • Writer's picturePaula Fontenelle

10 ways to avoid the holiday blues

“So this is Christmas…”

At this time of year, it is practically impossible to go one day without listening to John Lennon’s song. I love it, but every time I hear the second line “and what have you done?” - I cringe because the answer to this question is one of the reasons behind the holiday blues. Many people struggle emotionally because they look back and see very little accomplished. Either that or they envision a bleak future ahead. As an advocate for suicide prevention, I naturally worry about this fragile population.

A common trigger to sadness and anxiety is the ubiquitous pressure to be jolly and happy during the holidays; to have the perfect family, numerous friends, and of course, to be surrounded by carefully chosen presents. All this comes with a heavy toll, which can make us feel like a failure and pressured to put on a show because reality hardly ever meets these requirements.

Full disclosure, I am one of those annoying people who listen loudly to Christmas songs, sing along, and dance to them around the house. I decorate my home, make plans to visit friends, bug my sister to have a huge tree for when we come over, and convince my boyfriend to drive around the city to check the lights. Still, on the back of my mind is the concern about those who feel the opposite, so if you are one of these individuals, here are some ideas and reflections that may help you mitigate or even avoid the blues.

Before I dive into the suggestions, you should know that you are not alone. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that although the holidays generate mainly positive emotions, such as happiness (96%), love (90 %), and high spirits (89%), a large number of Americans are on the other side of the spectrum. Sixty-eight percent mentioned experiencing fatigue, 61% stress, 52% said they felt irritable, and 36% cited sadness. So be graceful with yourself. It is not just you.

I cannot miss the opportunity to debunk a long perpetuated myth about suicide: contrary to common belief, suicide rates decrease in the winter months. In the US, it peaks between March and August, therefore, during Spring and Summer.

December has the lowest suicide rates of the year.

How to fight the holiday blues:

1. Make time for yourself - No matter how busy and crazy the final days of 2019 may seem, find a few moments to be by yourself. Use the time to reflect on what is important to you. Have you lived in congruence with your values? Which plans did you leave behind and why? Any mistakes you made that can be avoided next year? What were the highlights of 2019? The answer to these questions may help clarify your priorities and can be a compass to guide you through the new year.

2. Say “no” - When planning your social engagements, remember that this is actually the perfect time to say “no” to undesired invitations. Take advantage of the seasonal excuse that everyone else throws around: “Sorry, but there is so much going on right now…” Who will doubt that? Surround yourself with people who genuinely care for you. The main goal here is to give yourself space to breathe and be selective about who you will spend your time with. In case you’re wondering, this includes family, which takes me to number three.

3. Say “no” to family or at least, limit your time with them - If part of your stress comes from having to be around family members, restrict your stay with them. We have an idealized image of what family means but the reality is that they can be toxic and a major source of anxiety. Sometimes, it takes months to get over the holidays with them, so if saying “no” is out of the question, cut back on time together as much as it’s comfortable for you.

4. Pace yourself - Hoping from party to party is usually not the best way to enjoy the festivities. Try to prioritize and balance between work and personal engagements. Who do you really want to spend time with? If it helps, get your calendar, write their names on a piece of paper and choose how to fit them into your schedule. A useful tip is to avoid condensing all your energy on two or three days. When you space it out over a couple of weeks, you have the opportunity to spend quality time with those who matter most.

5. Don’t let nostalgia take over - Remembering good times from the past can be quite joyful but only to a degree. Avoid falling into the trap of believing that your past was better. Even if you are having a hard time, fixating on the earlier years will only add dark, pessimistic strokes to the image you have of the present. How about reflecting on what needs to change so that next year you can be in a better place?

6. Short on money? Find free events - How about checking out the Christmas decorations around your city? Many stores and businesses offer cultural options this time of year. It is also common for cities to have outside events, such as choirs, tree lighting ceremonies, and festivals. These are also good options for those who prefer to be alone. And if that’s your case, make the best of it. Going for a walk is not in the picture? Then prepare the staying home days in advance so that they can be filled with activities you enjoy: binge TV shows, stock up on good food, get a comfortable pair of pajamas. Do your thing.

7. Take advantage of technology - If you can’t be with those you love, ask them to connect with you by video and just leave it on, so you can see what’s happening during their gatherings. You may not be physically there but you can still participate. When my sisters and I lived in separate countries, we used to Skype for hours, many times a week. We even watched TV together. This may seem odd at first, but it will decrease your sense of isolation.

8. Boost your self-esteem by volunteering - Helping others can not only add a new perspective to your life, but it can also make you feel good about yourself. Try it.

9. Put some time aside to reconnect - Call a couple of friends or family members you have not heard from for a while. Note that I wrote “call.” Texting is great but nothing beats hearing the caring voice of a loved one.

Making a phone or a video call says “I made an effort.”

10. Set realistic expectations for 2020 - This is the perfect time to look at what you have accomplished and what needs to change or improve in your life, but don’t go overboard. You did no exercise in 2019? Please don’t go from there to the goal of running five days a week. Be honest and kind to yourself because when you raise the bar to an unattainable level, you are just paving the way for more disappointment.

Most importantly, whatever you do, be truly present. If at a party, look people in the eyes, listen to what they say, pay attention to the music, taste the food you eat. If possible, put your phone on silent mode so that you are not tempted to look at the screen instead of living the moment.

Finally, enjoy and value what you have.

Listen to my podcast on your app or click:

My book Understanding Suicide: living with loss, paths to prevention can be found on Amazon.

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