Brain Health: Happy Holidays: Preventing and Beating Holiday Blues

by: Jenna Renfroe Ph.D, ABPP

The winter holidays are some of the most magical times of the year and are also quite stressful – for more than the obvious reasons of to-dos, gift-buying, and busy schedules. While the holidays can be a time of great joy and excitement, for many they are an annual reminder of painful memories, loss, grief, or triggers of past trauma and difficult relationships. According to a survey conducted by the national alliance on mental illness (NAMI), 64% of people with existing mental health difficulties say that the holiday season makes their symptoms worse. Results of this survey also helped to shed light on what exactly triggers individuals around this time. It was noted that 68% of respondents feel financially strained; 66% experience loneliness; 63% too much pressure; 57% unrealistic expectations; 55% found themselves remembering happier times in the past contrasting with the present; and 50% were unable to be with loved ones. Fact is, if you are privately experiencing any or all of these feelings, you are clearly not alone. In fact, you may actually be the majority. 

Mental health professionals know this pattern all too well. While some people look forward to extra time off for the holidays, mental health professionals are often overworked and dealing with some of the most challenging clinical situations of the year due to the rise of general dysphoria and mental health “crises” around this time. Studies have looked at whether or not mental health care utilization increases around the holidays and actually have found the opposite – overall utilization patterns by psychiatric patients in emergency rooms and inpatient units is lower, as is the prevalence of self-harm behavior and suicide attempts/completions. However, there is a catch. Researchers also found that there is a “rebound” phenomenon where there is an increase in self-harm gestures and suicide attempts following the December holidays in the New Year.

This suggests that, while people generally might grin and bear it during the holidays and maybe there is even a protective factor in all of the future-oriented, holiday events and gatherings, once all is said and done – people can be left in emotional turmoil. Increasing coping strategies for the “holiday blues” and prevention of this “holiday hangover,” if you will, is therefore of paramount importance. Lives might even depend on it.  

Step one has to start with prioritizing oneself. Yes, I know, this is the opposite of the holiday spirit of selflessness and giving, but the fact of the matter is that prioritizing one’s own self-care and mental health is not selfish; it is a basic necessity to be able to properly care for and be present with others. At times, this may also mean setting appropriate and healthy boundaries in relationships with family members or friends that have been problematic or triggering for you. Boundaries don’t have to be the kind with an electric fence; they can even be a nice, white picket fence, perhaps adorned with some lovely English ivory – beautiful, non-threatening, and yet still a gentle barrier and form of self-protection. 

Be aware of the effect of increased libations (alcohol consumption). While this can be a part of the holiday celebrations, also be mindful of the pathophysiological effects of increased alcohol use on the brain and psyche. Alcohol can lead to impulsive or erratic behavior, heighten interpersonal conflict, and lead to actions that are not thought through by the “wise” mind. Alcohol is also a depressant, meaning it can actually increase depressed mood, especially once its initial effects have worn off. 

For individuals for whom the holidays are riddled with grief and reminders of a rosier past, consider starting new traditions. Getting out of the familiar settings and scenes that can be so triggering of painful memories can be a wise strategy. Consider starting a fresh tradition, holding events at a grandchild’s home instead, or visiting a different town for the holidays. Each day is the opportunity to begin anew and write the next chapter a bit differently. Ask yourself, when you look back on your life 10, 15, or 25 years down the road – what will you wish you did more or less of? What will you hope you have stood for; how do you hope you will be able to say you lived your life? This is a helpful exercise to help explore one’s values and goal-setting to look towards a rich and meaningful future.  

Lastly, consider working with a mental health professional. Therapy shouldn’t be a last resort, but rather a means of prioritizing and optimizing one’s mental health and enhancing your life. If you or someone you know does find themselves in crisis, either report to the local emergency department or consider contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Dr. Jenna Renfroe is the newest neuropsychologist to join Pinehurst Neuropsychology. She is taking new patients. 910-420-8041.