T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month. Gilbert & Sullivan suggested that twenty-eight days of February were plenty. But sometimes December–the month of Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, of lights and carols and family and gifts–is the hardest month of the year.
For one thing, December’s when we get the least sunlight in the Northern hemisphere. The 21st is the longest night of the year. Lack of sunlight can bring on or exacerbate existing depression.
Moreover, it’s a season of expectations. Holiday parties, family parties, buying gifts, finding deals–the stress can drive other-wise mentally healthy people into a special holiday blues.
It’s the time when our celebrations with family remind us of personal losses–family members who are no longer living or who have moved far away or who have divorced.
And it’s the season of unfulfilled expectations and post-holiday letdown. People who had a wonderful time up until and even on Christmas find themselves feeling sad afterward. Some miss the rush and bustle or miss the family time. Others find that all the hopes they’d built up about presents they expected or family parties didn’t bringing them as much happiness as they hoped for.
How do you solve it?
There’s no single perfect solution to being happy in spite of all the stressors we face at this time of year. But here are a few thoughts:
1. Prepare ahead of time for the letdown. If you’ve had this problem in the past, then tell yourself ahead of time that you might feel a bit sad after the holidays are over. Remind yourself of all the reasons I mentioned above. It’s not exactly that you should accept the sadness itself, but accept that it happens and work to move past it instead of fighting its very existence.
2. Know you’re not alone. Even if everyone around you seems to be having a great holiday, you’re not alone if you’re feeling sad. There are other people feeling the same way you are.
3. Be expectant, but don’t put all your hopes on Christmas. You know that feeling of excitement you have as a kid when you’re sure someone will give you the present you want most? And then you get it and the world is fantastic for an hour or two. And then you’re done playing with it and a little let down.
I’ve felt that way and I know many others have as well. In recent years, I’ve stopped expecting that getting just the right present will be a life-altering, continual high. Instead, I relish the moment of excitement and then allow it to pass gracefully instead of being disappointed it didn’t last longer. This has become easier as I get older, but for some it’s still a challenge.
The same sorts of expectations can go into our celebrations with our family. We hope that old wounds will heal, that we’ll have a great time together, that the day will be fantastic. And it is–for a while. But then someone gets stressed or an old conflict stirs up and we realize this won’t be a magical, storybook Christmas.
I haven’t had that issue as our family gatherings are normally quite peaceful and I see these relatives more often than at Christmas. But I believe the same spirit that works in enjoying the gifts could apply to these situations as well. Enjoy the peace and harmony that’s there, try not to create discord yourself, and then allow it to pass (if it has to) without being drawn into the fray (as possible).
4. Fake it ’till you make it. This advice doesn’t work for everything, but it’s surprisingly on-point when it comes to moods. Smiling, acting friendly even if you’re not feeling friendly, laughing and socializing can lift your mood for a while, even if it doesn’t cure your overall depression.
Don’t burden “faking it” with expectations either. Just smile a little more, laugh a little more, and see where it takes you.
5. Talk to a Friend or Professional. If you’re feeling very sad and bottling it up inside you, it eats away at your emotional energy. Sometimes all you need is a good friend to talk to and you come away feeling lighter.
But if the depression hasn’t lifted farther down the road, it may be time to see someone professionally. Post-holiday sales are not a cure, even if they provide a small “shopper’s high.” And talking to a friend may be helpful too but not enough to get you back to happy.
And if you’re thinking of killing yourself, even if you’re just feeling hopeless about the future without actively planning a suicide, check out these suicide-prevention resources which may help you get through it.