Drs. Jean Miller and Dean Aslinia said fighting seasonal sadness takes compassion, self-kindness
The holiday season can be as laden with expectations as a Christmas stocking, sometimes leading to stress and feelings of hollowness. When the festive season becomes overwhelming, two University of Phoenix counseling experts have tips to help overcome these “holiday blues.”
For most, the aspirational expectations of the season – a model handed down by years of holiday films – can make people come to expect happy families, elaborate feasts and interstate get-togethers, sometimes with extended relatives who have not been seen in years. Sometimes things really do work out that way, but other times, the holidays fall short of these expectations, sometimes leaving people struggling to cope.
Dr. Jean Miller, associate dean in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix said that these feelings can cause the season to become unbearable.
“For people who may have issues with anxiety or depression, the holidays may feel very overwhelming,” Dr. Miller said. “The season can feel too chaotic and stressful for some people, but can also make others feel very lonely and isolated.”
These pressures can manifest physically in different ways, Dr. Miller said. People may feel increased anxiety symptoms, such as headaches, poor focus, interrupted sleep patterns, irritability, restlessness and even outright panic. Some might feel lonely, and this can lead to a strong desire to avoid people or places that trigger anxiety or sadness.
According to Dr. Miller, these symptoms may become more evident at this time of year because people can be “bombarded with messages about the “shoulds,” of the holidays, reminded constantly of the traditions and activities that define the season.
If you’re surrounded by family members who you love, these feelings of stress or anxiety can lead to uneasiness — especially if it’s those same family members who contribute to the negative feelings in the first place. Dr. Miller said this can be especially poignant when we “succumb to the societal messages and pressures” and end up putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves, as well as our families and friends.
"It's okay to have some alone or me time. And you shouldn't feel guilty for taking it."
— Dr. Dean Aslinia, department chair in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UOPX
Miller’s colleague and fellow counselor Dr. Dean Aslinia, department chair of the Phoenix Campus counseling program, agreed. He added that holiday-goers should remind themselves that it’s alright if their feelings don’t fit the mold of what they believe they’re supposed to feel in this sugar-cookie-sweet scenario.
"It's okay to have some alone or me time,” Dr. Aslinia said. “And you shouldn't feel guilty for taking it."
Dr. Aslinia, who serves as president-elect for the Arizona Counseling Association, suggested we might treat some of the holiday blues by turning the warmth of the season back onto ourselves with regular gifts of self-care, even if they’re as modest as a power nap or a quiet meal.
Being kind to yourself could mean avoiding polarizing topics of dinner-table conversation. If you already know you’re on a collision course with someone, just drop the subject — even if you know that pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza, or that Pluto is still definitely a planet.
"Sometimes it's best to keep the peace than win an argument," he said.
Dr. Miller added that self-care can even be as simple as maintaining a normal routine during an abnormal time, particularly if that includes staying in therapy or keeping open channels with other regular support systems. The holidays can also be a good time to practice everyday mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises. Another useful strategy may be to just cut back all together, and simplify the holidays. Don’t overextend yourself by attending too many parties, or plan on attending, but maybe stay for an hour and make a graceful exit.
Another tip — don’t stress too much about material gifts, and don’t feel the need to spend money you don’t have.
“Volunteering and paying it forward help many people feel the joy of the season by giving in a different way,” she said.
As tough as it can be to celebrate together, the holiday fatigue might be even more difficult for those who face it alone. In that case, volunteering is a good measure that pulls us out of the house and into a healthier community environment.
With the right strategies, this time of year can be pleasant and relaxing. But if you’re doing your best and are still caught in the holiday shadow, it may be time to seek expert care from a licensed professional, either through a UOPX counseling center or an outside office.
Those in crisis can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which is free, open and staffed by professionals around the clock, every day of the year, to help anyone feeling intense loneliness or distress.