The lights, the parties, the music, the cheer—it’s the most wonderful time of the year! Oh, sorry. Do you have that song stuck in your head now?
Or maybe it already was, what with the radio, TV ads, and mall muzak drowning us with decked halls, hollied boughs, and fa-la-la-la-las every December—if not as soon as the Halloween decorations are boxed up.
It’s a reminder that we have to buy presents, cater for people, organize celebrations.
It can be draining, this annual onslaught of Yuletide tunes. In fact, some experts think too much Christmas music is actually bad for our mental health. Clinical psychologist Linda Blair told Sky News that Christmas music makes it particularly hard for retail workers to concentrate, bombarded as they are with “Jingle Bells” as they restock shelves.
What’s more, these ring-ring-ring-a-ling earworms can wriggle their way into our very brains, affecting how we feel and act. Christmas music “might make us feel that we’re trapped,” Blair said. “It’s a reminder that we have to buy presents, cater for people, organize celebrations.”
It might also drive us to make more impulse purchases, as Blair noted the effect music can have on consumer behavior.
For many people, though, it’s not just the merry melodies that are maddening. All of the Christmas season’s reds and greens give them a bad case of the holiday blues.
The holiday blues isn’t a technical term—nor is it a simple case of the bah humbugs. But the phrase is colloquially used for the very real anxiety and depression some people experience from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
I don’t even know what we’re celebrating anymore.
Laurel Jernigan, a retired school librarian, knows exactly what Linda Blair means by “trapped.” “Pressure,” she immediately answers when HealthyWay asked her how Christmas makes her feel.
“Pressure to perform,” Jernigan continues. “To be perfect. To have to do stuff like—have to be jolly, have to want to listen to Christmas, have to want to go shopping for all these gifts. It feels like there’s expectation to be happy and in this,” she pauses, “spirit.”
“I don’t even know what we’re celebrating anymore. Consumerism? I feel like it’s imposed on us, on society,” she says.
And also like Blair, Jernigan locates much of this pressure in reminders, lamenting how she can’t flip on the news or walk into the store for a simple gallon of milk without being reminded to “buy buy buy,” she says.
But other sources of pressure for Jernigan reach far back into her past. She spent her childhood Christmases in Cleveland, rushing around to see relatives. “The whole family had to go to each other’s houses because everybody decorated, and you had to look at their houses. Everybody had to go over—and everybody got mad at each other and talked about each other,” she says.
“There was pressure,” she refrains. That pressure made for friction and tension in family relationships. Christmas didn’t mean goodwill towards all and peace on earth. It meant “sitting in the back of a car and hearing my mom complain about everybody.”
Years later, when she was a mother of three and practicing Catholic, she felt pressure to keep the materialism of Christmas at bay: “I had a boundary that I was not going to step over the threshold into the glitz and unholy glamor” of the holidays.
Then she suffered a surprise divorce. “The loneliness,” Jernigan opens up. “The family unit that I believed in was shattered.” Each year, Christmastime reminds her of that pain—not to mention the guilt she bore as her sons shuttled back and forth between two households, the guilt she bore because she couldn’t afford as many presents as her ex-husband could.
Have you been naughty or nice—to yourself?
Jernigan’s pain, fortunately, has greatly subsided since her divorce. She’s long been happily remarried, and husband teases her that she isn’t a Scrooge but has “hyperholiphobia”—his clever coinage for an irrational fear of the holiday season.
But Jernigan does thoughtfully pinpoint some major triggers of a blue Christmas: negative childhood experiences, traumatic episodes, and, yes, societal pressure.
For his part, Robert Hales, MD, Chair of the University of California–Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, identifies some more immediate—and perhaps more easily overlooked—causes of our yuletide woes.
During the holidays, we drink more, eat more, and sleep less. Excessive drinking commonly co-occurs with depression, overeating can hurt our body image, and lack of sleep contributes to lethargy. And don’t forget to exercise, which keeps our bodies and minds happy and healthy—something easy to slough off when we’re flying around like Rudolph.
Moderation and rest during the season’s convivial congregations can boost our energy and buoy our self-esteem. So, too, can making sure we don’t over-schedule ourselves with festivities, which can raise our stress levels. If we do have a busy calendar, plan for it ahead of time, as all that last-minute shopping and mad-dash cookie-baking can rocket our blood pressure to the North Pole.
Time, indeed. In a sweeping 2006 survey of holiday stress by researchers at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 67 percent of participants reported lack of time caused them stress during the Christmas season. This was followed closely behind at 62 percent by lack of money, given the great demands the holidays place on the pocketbook. Setting a budget—and holding yourself to it—can help manage the financial challenges of all the yearend events.
The survey also found that women were more likely than men to report increases in stress during Christmas. “Holiday stress has a particular impact on women, who take charge of many of the holiday celebrations, particularly the tasks related to preparing meals and decorating the home,” it concluded as its first key finding. So, be sure to make Christmas preparations a shared responsibility in your life.
And the third leading stressor? Commercialism or hype, with 53 percent of respondents indicating it caused them stress often or sometimes.
Hales reminds us, though, that some of the hype we experience during the holidays isn’t exterior—or “all that tinsel and crap,” as Jernigan bluntly sums it to HealthyWay with a laugh.
It’s also the interior hype of the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves and on our families to have the perfect, gingerbread-cookie-cutter holiday. To decorate the perfect tree. To cook the perfect holiday meal. To get along angelically with family. To look divine in your dress as you throw the perfect holiday party. To make the most lasting, magical, and Instagrammable memories.
Remember that perfection is make-believe—just like those sparkling, tear-jerking, wrapped-up-in-a-bow denouements of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.
Learn to distinguish the holiday blues from more serious depression.
Another contributor to seasonal sadness is, well, simply that: seasonal. The days are shorter and, for those living in more northerly climes, wetter and colder—all compounded by daylight savings time screwing with our biological clocks. The time and weather changes can indeed sap our spirits, but does that mean our holiday blues is full-fledged Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is much bandied about this time of year, but it’s much more serious than our occasional run-ins with Charlie Brown. Mental health professionals consider SAD a form of major depressive disorder that coincides with specific seasons, typically winter though sometimes summer.
Just getting a bit down during Christmas—which can be normal—doesn’t mean you’re presenting with SAD. SAD, as with depression in general, has to significantly interfere with people’s daily functioning and relationships. Many of us gain weight and sleep more around the holidays, but people with SAD experience those symptoms more intensely along with chronic feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, loss of interest and focus, and even thoughts of taking their own lives.
The severity of these symptoms, though, are also why SAD is much rarer: Norman Rosenthal, MD, notes only 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from full-fledged SAD, with another 14 percent dealing with lesser seasonal mood changes.
As always, seek out a doctor if you’re concerned your holiday blues is more than a temporary funk. And in the spirit of the season, encourage your loved ones to do the same.
Christmas Fact and Fiction
Now, one of the more severe symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, as we saw, are thoughts of ending it all—and there is a story that makes the media rounds, as predictably as Black Friday sales, that rates of it always rise during the holidays.
But this is a myth. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the number of people killing themselves is the lowest in December. Rates actually rise in spring and summer. Christine Moutier, MD, told NPR that the kind of stress we experience during the holidays, despite common assumptions, aren’t major risk factors for taking one’s life. Genetics, trauma, mental illness, and access to lethal means are, though, Moutier said.
It’s important not to perpetuate the myth, the CDC urges, because the misinformation can hamper efforts to help people struggling with mental health challenges.
The holidays are associated, however, with increased heart attacks and other emergency room visits. A major 2004 national study found a 5 percent increase in heart-related deaths during the holidays. Some cardiologists link the jump to various stressors that exacerbate conditions for people with existing risk to heart disease: cold weather further constricting arteries, more physical labor like shoveling snow or putting up lights, increased intake of salts and fats, and delaying care due to a busy holiday schedule.
And it’s not just the eggnog that’s spiked around the holidays. So, too, are visits to the emergency room due to excessive drinking, especially on New Year’s Eve. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has documented 50 percent more drinking-related emergency room visits on New Year’s Eve compared to New Year’s Day.
A good rule of thumb? Don’t overdo it. Food, drink, exertion—and take it easy on the tinsel while you’re at it, for Laurel Jernigan’s sake.
All millennials want for Christmas is you.
Another “grinch” more and more people are watching out for is SDD. It sounds scary, but it won’t be sending you to the doctor’s office. Maybe the therapist’s, though.
SDD is Seasonal Dating Disorder, a term some are using for the tendency of some, often twenty- and thirty-year-old singles to pair up during the holiday season. It also popularly goes by cuffing season, so named because singles are handcuffing themselves to their new-found beau(x) for wintertime.
We all want someone to snuggle with around the fireplace with cups of hot cocoa and a Netflix binge of Christmas movies, don’t we? That’s at least what cuffers, as these seasonal daters are sometimes dubbed, say.
And indeed, that’s what Market Watch found in January 2016, when eHarmony jumped 21 percent in mobile registrations since Christmas and OKCupid 30 percent. Zoosk expected a 20 percent jump heading into the New Yea, and Grindr a 30 to 50 percent increase over the holidays. Match.com anticipated 60 percent between Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day. And on the day after Christmas alone, Tinder told Market Watch it typically sees a 5 to 7 percent rise.
More recently, according to Vogue, the dating app Hinge polled its users and found men were 15 percent more likely to look for a relationship in winter—and 11 percent were less likely in spring and summer. Women reported being 5 percent more interested during winter, and 5 percent less in spring and summer.
Ask Santa for a little reflection this year.
Relationship psychologists and counselors, though, don’t exactly recommend jumping into the one-horse open sleigh with your latest seasonal sweetheart. Dating out of fear of being alone during the holidays can lead to settling, conflating convenience for love, or harm your ability to form lasting relationships.
Cuffers are right on one thing, though: Relationships are key to holiday happiness.
That was clear as silver bells when Amanda and Sue O’Connell spoke to HealthyWay about their experience of the holidays. Amanda lives and works in Ireland, but there is no question she flies the 11-hour-flight home to Southern California for Christmas every year to spend time with her family—including Sue, her mother.
Amanda is always swept up by Christmas: “It makes me feel euphoric, like my spirits are being lifted. It makes me feel sentimental and teary-eyed most of the time, because it reminds me of my family and of the wonderful Christmases that we’ve always had, not only as a child, but even now.”
Sue echoes her sentiments “It makes me very excited. It’s, for me, all about the family coming together. And because we all feel that same excitement, it’s contagious.”
“None of the magic is gone” from their Christmas celebrations, Amanda says, “because for the most part, we all buy into the premise of Christmas.”
As they described it, much of that premise rests on their traditions. For many families, Christmas traditions can feel rote, obligatory, and performative, causing friction instead of cohesion year after year.
… I wanted it to be a bigger day, not just focused on gifts but about being together.
But for the O’Connells, traditions are like glue. “It’s never up for debate that we put up a tree, if we’re going to have stockings, if we’re going to have a meal,” Amanda explains. “Knowing that these things are always in place—and even as our family gets bigger, people are just added into that.”
Sue describes how they open gifts, one by one, explaining to each other why they thought the present was right for them or how it reminded them of a fond memory.
The O’Connells are quick to validate Jernigan’s experience: that Christmas can’t be forced on anyone, that one’s childhood experiences of Christmas shape whether they become Ebenezer Scrooge or Will Ferrell’s Buddy in Elf. Sue, in fact, grew up in a divorced household, remembering Christmas as just going over to a relatives to open gifts. “When I had my kids, I wanted it to be a bigger day, not just focused on gifts but about being together,” she says.
But the real secret to the O’Connell Christmas magic isn’t looking ahead—which can stress, like Christmas music does, a lot of people out by reminding them of all the shopping they have to do, all the cookies they have to bake, all the Christmas cards they have to send out, all the parties they have to get ready for.
Instead, it’s looking back.
“Because it comes at the end of the year, you reflect back on your year,” Amanda O’Connell says. “For instance, I have had a stressful year at work and with buying a house and making big life changes, and yet, when I reflect back on the year, I’m very proud at how much stuff I’ve accomplished.”
And it’s these family-filled moments of pause and gratitude that help make their Christmas, well, “the most wonderful time of the year,” as Amanda puts it.