During therapy, a 43-year-old woman tells me: ‘‘I have a complicated relationship with December. For the world, it’s time for cheer and celebration. For me, this is the time when I begin to struggle with low moods, irritability, and I joke with friends saying I have ‘holiday blues’. Earlier, I would choose to travel this time of the year but with the pandemic I am too scared to travel. I don’t know how I am going to deal with the sadness near the end of the month.’’
Over 17 years as a therapist, I have seen that a lot of people have an ambivalent relationship with December. The holiday season can be triggering for people across gender and age groups. It is generally associated with people re-examining how the year has passed, a process that can trigger anxiety. For those who have struggled with grief or loss and others who have a list of unmet goals or resolutions, the introspection can be scary and lead to feelings of sadness, disappointment and emptiness.
One trend I see amidst all the celebration is people beginning to worry about finances as they see others engaging in holiday gifting or on food, travel, clothes and accessories. This comparison, aggravated by social media, leads to people feeling they are “not doing well enough” or experiencing “fear of missing out”, particularly when they see social media timelines filled with pictures of house parties or exotic locations.
This is the time when some clients report feeling lonely and others, who are in unhappy relationships, talk about how they may need to address their loneliness in intimate relationships. Women talk about how their body image issues begin to emerge during this time; they feel uncomfortable with their weight or the absence of self-care when it comes to personal grooming. This impacts their self-confidence, overall mood and how they feel in social interactions.
If you find yourself struggling, don’t shame yourself. Acknowledge your feelings and find ways to be self-compassionate. All our feelings serve a purpose and if we can look at them beyond the lens of positive or negative, we can create space for greater kindness towards ourselves and our needs.
Research shows that having structure to your day goes a long way in how people feel on days that can be overwhelming, particularly if it’s around Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Even if you are going to be home, have a plan in place. Clarity on where you will order food from or what you will bake, the time you will retire to bed or do a catch-up call with a friend or family will enable you to stay engaged and have a closure ritual for the day.
During holiday season, I have often seen that people spend extended periods of time scrolling, binge-watching and delaying sleep—this only lowers mood further. Choosing to limit time on social media or even a social media detox will help.
If you are planning to meet friends and family, remember moderation is key to avoid exhaustion. Being mindful when it comes to eating, drinking, how long you stay at a party or how many get-togethers you say yes to, goes a long way when it comes to personal well-being. Learning to be cognizant when it comes to knowing what gives you energy or drains you can help in these choices.
Building rituals, whether it’s spending time at an orphanage, looking at old pictures, buying books, writing gratitude letters or catching up on all the Christmas movies that are filled with hope and magic are some ways of personal meaning-making in the festive season.
Re-imagining December and the holiday season to meet your needs and fit your current reality may be a good beginning. Start now, it’s never too late.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.