Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Western Washington Medical Group.
“Most of the time, the holidays are a happy time for people,” says Andrea Friesen, an advanced registered nurse practitioner at Western Washington Medical Group’s Lake Serene Clinic. But when times are hard, the holidays can be the hardest, particularly for those who don’t have family and have to spend the holidays alone.
“I treat a lot of patients who have had trauma in their lives, either during the holidays, or have lost a loved one, and the holidays can be a hard time because of that,” says Friesen. Plus, “COVID definitely increased the need for mental health treatment.”
With the holiday blues hitting harder this year, actively taking care of your mental health is the best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones.
“Financial stress is a big driver of depression,” notes Friesen, and the pandemic created a lot of financial stress, through job loss and skyrocketing prices for everything from bread to gasoline. The holiday season comes with lots of extra expenses, too (have you seen what a Christmas tree costs this year?).
Holiday stress goes beyond money worries. The shopping and parties create as much of a time crunch as a financial one, plus there’s extra time spent cooking up high-stakes meals. All of these activities come with high expectations that can become their own stressors. The burden of creating joyful memories has become more intense in recent years, as social media has created unrealistic standards for everything. Nowadays, Christmas cookies have to be photogenic and paper snowflakes have to be works of art.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have another holiday struggle. “Seasonal affective disorder is our local burden,” warns Friesen. All of the extra stress, coupled with low light levels, can result in uncharacteristic anxiety, sleep disorders and even depression. For people who are already dealing with mental health issues, the holidays may require more intensive treatment — such as starting therapy, or starting or increasing medication.
Holiday-specific stress and depression are most common in adults, but kids can have a hard time, too, especially if they’ve experienced trauma or have preexisting mental health issues.
“Two years of remote schooling made a big impact on some kids and their families,” says Friesen. And not to add to the pressure, but “a parent’s stress can make a difference with kids, too,” she says. Getting help when you need it is important not just for you, but for everyone you care about.
Handling the holidays
Much of the holiday season is about community. So, there’s some irony in the fact that during the holidays it’s harder to open up about having a hard time. We don’t want to disappoint people or bring them down during a time that is supposed to be joyful, plus there’s still a stigma against seeking professional help.
“I always recommend a therapist. A lot of times people don’t want or need to go on medication, but it’s important be able to talk to someone, whether it’s your health-care provider, your pastor or a family member. If you need help, make an appointment to see your primary care provider to talk about your options,” says Friesen.
Sometimes, just being able to share your feelings with a friend can help you feel better. But while a good friend can listen and empathize, a therapist can coach coping skills and also diagnose when a problem is more than just holiday blues and may require medication. When busyness is part of the problem, and a person is already struggling to take the time for self-care, Friesen suggests, “A lot of people are doing telehealth now, which is a lot easier because they don’t have to drive there and take that time out of the day. They can just get on the computer and talk to somebody.”
Much like adults, children who need mental health support experience personality changes such as increased irritability, withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, and sudden changes to eating or sleeping habits. “Not being social, staying in their room with the door shut, not talking to parents — those are red flags,” says Friesen.
When your child is hiding out in their room, “Be involved with your kid and talk to them, not just asking how their day was, because you’re just going to get a ‘Fine.’ Talking about specifics about their day is important,” says Friesen. She also suggests trying to get kids out of their room by engaging them in seasonal activities with family and friends. If a child isn’t responding to your outreach, it may be time to see your primary care provider for a mental health referral.
Healthy body, healthy mind
Even happy holidays make it harder for us to maintain healthy behaviors: We get too busy to exercise, we stay up late and it’s nearly impossible to pass up all of those Christmas cookies. Top that off with stress and maintaining healthy habits can feel impossible. But staying physically healthy during the holidays is important to your mental health. Even if you have to skip parties, get enough sleep. Spend less time baking and more time playing outside in the snow or strapping on ice skates. “Avoid eating out,” says Friesen. Food cooked at home is almost always healthier. You can cut stress and calories by making simpler, healthier holiday meals. “You don’t need to bake four pies for Thanksgiving dinner,” she suggests.
Nobody wants to be the grinch, but it’s important to set healthy limits for your kids, too. That goes for holiday sweets and that other unhealthy treat — screen time. It’s easy when you’re busy and the kids are home from school to let them spend too much time online.
“People only post when they’re happy,” reminds Friesen, and all of those perfect holiday posts set up artificially high expectations. “Social media is linked to depression and anxiety.” For both adults and for kids, time spent scrolling through images of other people living their best life is time taken away from living yours. Spending less time on screens and more time together benefits everyone. This year, give your family the gift of better mental health.