Keeping happiness in the holidays

By Dan O’Leary
Posted Dec. 12, 2014

Q Here it comes: The “holiday season.” I know that lots of people feel the pinch this time of year — pressure on gifts, meals, happiness. But the fact is, nothing makes me feel worse about myself than this winter holiday season, particularly since I spend it on my own. Are the holiday blues just a fact of life?
A This is absolutely one of the hardest times of year for many folks, and your feelings of sadness, loss or isolation are very common, regardless of what canned happiness shows up on TV. The days are cold and short, there are fewer nutrient-rich foods around and it’s harder to get exercise than in the nice months. Couple that with the intense pressure to be cheerful, even for those of us who may not celebrate the holidays, plus the complicated feelings we may have about past holidays, and it’s a recipe for high anxiety and, often, the blues.
So let’s turn our focus to finding ways to combat seasonal depression or flat out prevent it. Here are some positive steps that may help you feeling healthier this winter.
1. Acknowledge your feelings and let yourself off the hook. For all the reasons listed above, the ones you mentioned, and countless others, it’s okay to not feel like a holiday card all the time. If someone in your life is taking pains to make you feel like a Grinch, be an advocate for yourself and ask them to stop — or even avoid them for the next month or so.
2. Reach out. Being alone and being lonely aren’t the same thing, of course. But if you are feeling particularly isolated, please seek out your community. Book clubs, activity groups in your building and civic or religious organizations are good places to start. Maybe we’ll see you at one of our senior lunch sites for the warmth that company can provide. Or visit your local hospital with some balloons — volunteering your time to help others is a good way to lift your spirits, get outside of your own head, and broaden your friendships.
3. Don’t abandon healthy habits. Be kind to your body and mind by maintaining your self-care practices. Continue to get plenty of sleep and seek out sunshine and endorphins, both of which can help fight the chemical causes of holiday blues. Talk to your doctor about herbal supplements known to boost energy levels and mood, such as St. John’s Wort. Start each morning by stretching your muscles and waking up every part of your body. Consider a sun lamp for the dreary days – studies are showing that just a few minutes of sunlight (real or by lamp) make significant changes to mood.
Page 2 of 2 – 4. Create your own traditions. It’s not like there are rules for how you spend your next few weeks. If the loss of old traditions is making you glum, adapt them to your new life circumstances or build something new. If you used to cook for family, try cooking for (or with!) your neighbors. Invite a former co-worker to lunch. If you live in a residence with staff, spend some time with them on a holiday afternoon to brighten their workday. Organize a brunch for others who don’t celebrate the holidays or have no families nearby.
5. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Even if you spend plenty of time on your own, dedicating time to spend on yourself (cooking yourself a nice meal, exercising or doing deep breathing, journaling, taking a walk on a mild night to stargaze, paint your fingernails or toenails, listening to soothing music) will help you return to yourself, and remember that you deserve care and calm.
6. Seek professional help if you need it. You may find it empowering to face the winter holiday season with your own health and wellbeing in mind. But, despite your best efforts, you may feel persistently sad or anxious, unable to sleep, and dismayed by even routine tasks. If these feelings last for a while, ask for help. The counsel of a mental health professional may be precisely what you need, and there’s certainly no shame in asking for what you need to be a healthy, fulfilled person. Mystic Valley Elder Services operates a mobile mental health clinic for older adults who need professional mental health services but are unable to leave their homes for treatment or counseling. To find out more about this service, call us at 781-324-7705.
I extend my sincerest wishes for your winter to be a contemplative, peaceful and healthy winter time, however that may end up looking for you. Most importantly, I hope that you remember that you are not alone: in these feelings, or in this world. You have community, and we are here to help.
Mystic Valley Elder Services partners with older adults and adults living with disabilities to provide critical, life-supporting care and resources to the Mystic Valley region. These resources include senior dining sites where older adults may find companionship and nutritious meals. For more information, visit or call 781-324-7705.
Tips in this column were adapted from the Mayo Clinic.

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