Unexpected Things that Contribute to the Holiday Blues . . .

This time of year our news feeds are scattered with helpful articles about stress and the holiday blues and how to fight and avoid them.  Certainly, the combination of high social expectations, mixed with families that have never learned to resolve or manage conflicts are a big source of holiday blues.  Some people come from quite dysfunctional and abusive families and simply hate the holidays with their failed expectations.  People with negative family backgrounds are so lonely at Christmas time (invite one over to join you!). But there are reasons other than bad family relationships that bring the Holiday Blues.  Here’s a list of unexpected things that increase stress, anxiety, and depression at holiday time . . .

1.       A disrupted and over-full schedule.  It seems every year there are more and more obligations at Thanksgiving and Christmas time: school plays and programs, office parties, traditional events that increase year after year, church events.  Everyone seems to want to schedule a party for Christmas.  People need structure and routine in life to give a sense of wellbeing and predictability.  All of this gets thrown out at Christmas time.  It’s not uncommon for people to schedule “desperate” counseling appointments in December to discuss family stress, and then not show up because they don’t know what day or time it is.  Seriously, this is common.  It comes from a schedule that is more disruption than routine.  The point here is not merely the busy-ness but how being out of a structured routine messes with our perceptions of time.  So . . .

Be very intentional about what you say yes to for special events.  Recognize that while holiday activities can really be fun, they can also disrupt your sense of time.  All those activities require processing by our brains.  They mess up our sleep cycles and leave us feeling disoriented.  Be intentional in your holiday calendar and not driven by every request or event.  Disruption to our Schedule is particularly impactful to children who become more irritable and disobedient when their schedules are unpredictable, and their sleep is disrupted.  And often, they just want down time and play time.  If we’re wise, we’ll forgo even some really worthy events to keep our schedules sane.  You can’t do it all, and often less is more. 

2.       Sugar.  Need I say more?  The average American is supposed to put on something like 3 to 5 pounds every holiday season.  There are sugar and sweets everywhere.  What once was a special Christmas treat available for a few days is now an everywhere, every day, all-day-long indulgence for two solid months.  It would seem every office desk, every home’s kitchen island, and every social gathering abounds with cookies, candy, baked goods, and the like.  We get sold tree-shaped Reese’s bars, red-and-green wrapped Hershey’s kisses, boxes of Sees and Whitman’s chocolates, and red and green M & M’s.  And we’ve barely gotten over the glut of Halloween candy when the Christmas candy onslaught begins.  All that sugar wreaks havoc with our blood sugar levels sending us into glycemic rollercoasters, which make us want to (wait for it) consume more sugar.  Then our moods rollercoaster too.  Our thoughts become sluggish and dull, and arguments skyrocket with spouses, children, even coworkers.  This Christmas get off the sugar rollercoaster.

I strongly recommend thinking ahead of time about how much you intend to consume, and to remember that sluggish dull feeling after eating too much sugar; it’s really unpleasant.  Put the sweets away in the pantry or freezer between gatherings to avoid drive-by snacking. And frankly, don’t bake as many cookies.  Only say yes to a treat if you’ve planned for it.  Offset the sugar with whole foods and low carb meal options (healthy soups and salads) to balance out your sugar intake.  Plan ahead to resist the social pressure to “oh, just have one, it won’t hurt” because one really isn’t one at the holiday time.  I recommend using a diet or nutrition APP to track what you’re actually consuming, and then say yes only when you want something and when there’s room on your calorie intake for the day (my current favorite is the Fitbit app).  The simple act of writing down what you eat, will show you just how much you are actually consuming.  A big gotcha at Holiday time:  sugary hot drinks.  I’m a sucker for Starbucks Peppermint Mochas, but a Tall size is a whopping 440 calories–mostly from sugar.  Be intentional about your Christmas treats–you may actually enjoy them more.

3.       Sleep.  With all that increased busy-ness in our schedule and evening events, our sleep gets seriously disrupted at Holiday time.  With decreased sleep comes lowered mood, foggy thinking, increased appetite, irritability, a general fatigue, and a craving for more sugar and caffeine.  It’s really hard to enjoy special events when you are sleepy and tired.  Track your sleep with a Fitbit or other health watch.  While these devices and apps offer only an estimate, they can show you in some objective way how much sleep you are actually getting or missing, and you can adjust accordingly.  Sleep is so very, very important to mental health and the Holiday time totally messes with it.  Take a page from Clement More and “Settle your brains for a long winter’s nap.”

4.       Alcohol.  No doubt about it, alcohol consumption goes way up in the festive Holiday time.  And alcohol advertising, particularly for stronger liquors, is also way up.  All that extra alcohol puts stress on your body to process and metabolize it and adds extra calories to your diet.  As pleasant as alcohol may sometimes be, it is flat out not good for us.  With increased drinking comes disinhibition and impaired judgement, and depression.  Family conflicts go up, people say things under the influence that hurt and can last long after the alcohol has gone away.  Alcohol use will also disrupt your sleep.  While it may put you to sleep, the type of sleep we get with alcohol is not neurologically restful or restorative.  So–again be intentional about alcohol consumption during the holidays.  Like sugar, recognize that it will be served everywhere, and you may be pressured or socialized to drink far more alcohol than you do other times of the year.  Consider not stocking your home with extra liquor or wine and instead make other colorful and festive non-alcoholic beverages simply because everywhere else you go someone will offer you a drink.  My favorite:  diet ginger ale and cranberry juice–it tastes really good and is colorful and different.

5.       Allergies:   Every year, millions of people bring a mold and pollen infested tree into their homes, and then proceed to sneeze and cough and wheeze their way through Christmas.  Some of us (I’m one of them) get really foggy-headed around real Christmas trees, and then get irritable–adding to holiday stress.  And let me say, I love live trees.  I love the smell and the authenticity of a real, live freshly-cut tree.  But I’m also allergic to them and I get very foggy headed and lethargic around them.  For years we kept the tradition of a live tree, and I begged and pleaded with my family to move to an artificial one to spare me the brain fog.  Finally, last year they relented, and I must say the nice artificial tree we bought is lovely, and it’s reusable, and much, much less fuss than a live one.  I really had come to dread going shopping for a tree–an event most families cherish.  But all that dread was my body warning me not to do this.  I was tested many years ago for allergies and found to be allergic to pine trees and mold–exactly what comes with that live tree.  So, consider changing up this tradition if you or a loved one have these allergies.  Other advantages–lowered cost year after year, no dead tree to dispose of, no dropped pine needles, no fire hazard, no filling up the tree stand with water, no sap on your carpet; and ours is pre-lit, so no scratchy, ladder tilting, scrambling around a tree wedged into a corner to put up lights.  Really, the artificial tree last year was quite nice.

6.       Dehydration.  Dehydration is a risk for brain health any time of the year, but at Christmas time, with wintry cold weather, we tend to switch from drinking water to drinking warm teas and coffees (both dehydrating), or alcohol as substitutes.  The colder air is naturally drier as well, drying out our sinuses and our skin.  When we are dehydrated, we deprive our brains of a much-needed resource for generating the electrical energy they need to function.  Our lungs don’t function as well when we’re dry and so our oxygen levels can go down.  We run heaters in our homes night and day, and these too dry out the air and consequently our bodies.  There is some evidence that dehydration increases the severity and frequency of panic attacks.  There is also evidence, for the same reasons, that dehydration can exacerbate depression.  You see, while your body is 75% water, your brain is 85% water.  Your nervous system needs water to run the sodium pump to create electrical potential in your brain.  Does your brain feel like it needs recharging?  It’s electrical potential may well be low and in need recharging. If you are dehydrated it will be much harder for it to.  So get out those water bottles that you put way after summer, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Are you Prepared for Winter?


As I write this, it is late August, mildly overcast, and there are the very earliest signs of fall – changing and falling leaves, even though it is still 82 degrees outside.  For the past few years these seasonal signs also bring faint feelings of foreboding.  I’m not ready yet to give up summer with all it’s outdoor activity and sunshine.  I’ve come to understand that I have a mild to moderate form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, more commonly known as the winter blues, and through the years each Fall, I have developed a dread of the dark winter and my associated depressed mood. But I’m hopeful that this year will be different, because I’ve learned how to fight back against it.  You can too.

I really noticed the symptoms of SAD since moving to the Midwest in 1995 from my native Southern California. In retrospect I believe I had the disorder in my teen years, as well. I grew up in a coastal town that suffered overcast, foggy weather for several months of the year.  I now know that I have need for bright light to maintain a sense of well-being and when my environment becomes dark – due to fog, short days, rainy weather, and overcast skies – I get blue.  Well, let’s be direct; I get depressed.

In the winter I become lethargic, foggy headed, and suffer from low motivation. My mood becomes more pessimistic and irritable.  I put on weight – attempting to use food to increase my energy.  I don’t have much motivation, and my productivity plummets.  Then the secondary self-berating kicks in about what I should be doing and about what I’m not accomplishing.  These symptoms and behaviors build as the winter progresses and are particularly bad when we have a 4 or 5 day stretch of cloudy skies.  Last year we had a lot of overcast winter days and by late January I felt like I hit the wall. 

But this changed when I finally took my suspicions of SAD seriously.  I’d known of SAD for years because I’m a clinical psychologist. I knew of the symptoms and something of the treatments but I always tried to white-knuckle it through the winter. Finally, I decided to get serious. I read The Winter Blues by Norman Rosenthal and started putting into practice his recommended light therapy. I was skeptical at first thinking that it must be a placebo, but quickly became a believer.  SAD is not so much psychological (though it has psychological affects) but biological.  It is very well researched and documented.  About 10% of people living in the Northern portions of the U.S. suffer from SAD and the further from the equator you live the higher the percentages are.  SAD is highly corelated (and most people think caused) by low levels of light in the winter. It is believed that low light levels signal those of us with SAD that it’s time to hibernate. The lack of light hitting our retina causes hormonal changes including increasing the production of melatonin – the sleep hormone.  Our brains and bodies begin to slow down, metabolism drops off, and we want to sleep.  We cannot keep up with the demands of modern Western civilization that propel us through life without regard for the season of the year or time of day.  In my own experience I noticed that when overcast weather would continue for four or five days I’d begin to feel down and blah. I also began to realize that sunny days coincided with an improved mood and higher energy.  It didn’t matter what the temperatures were or if there was snow on the ground – light levels were definitely having a serious impact on my mood. 

Treatment for SAD involves light exposure or light therapy. This involves using a very bright light at 10,000 LUX.  Within a very short time, both my wife and myself noticed a considerable change in my mood. Where I live, the skies are overcast or cloudy on average 2/3 of the year, and supplementing with light therapy is a necessary tool.  I use THIS LIGHT, purchased on Amazon.  It worked so well I bought a second one for the office, for afternoon boosters.  I get up early, make coffee, and sit next to the light (arms length away) for 45 minutes. I found that shorter treatments would still leave me a bit drowsy, and longer treatments didn’t really produce any more benefit.  During my time of light therapy, I read, prepare for my day, pray (eyes open), meditate, think, and do devotions.  I have received such benefit out of the additional meditation time, that I’ve added it to my morning routine year-round, even during sunny weather when I don’t need the light box. During the midwinter months when the daylight is short, I try to do a second round of light therapy in the afternoon.

This small disciplined change has made a huge impact on fighting SAD for me.  I’m prepared for the winter now.  I’ve already started light therapy again as the days get shorter, especially on dark overcast days.  And I’m planning on reading Dr. Rosenthal’s book again as a refresher.  If you think you may suffer from SAD – seek help. At the very least, read and learn about the condition.  You don’t have to continue to struggle with the Winter Blues. You can fight back.