Coping with the Festive Blues
Updated: Jan 21
Do the upcoming festivities make you feel blue? Two clinical psychologists share how to get through the festive season in one piece.
Not everyone is excited about festivals and holidays. For some, these can trigger feelings of irritability, anxiety, sadness, guilt, loneliness, and/or worthlessness, which can be accompanied by sudden changes in appetite and disturbed sleep patterns. This is often referred to as the holiday blues.
The death of a loved one, prolonged financial uncertainties as a result of the pandemic, loss of property such as those experienced during the flash floods in Kuala Lumpur last December, and factors such as social isolation can compound these feelings.
According to the national “Beating the Holiday Burn” survey of 2,000 Americans, it was found that 88% feel stressed when celebrating the holidays. Top five holiday stressors include purchasing presents, expenses and budgeting, cooking holiday dinner/feasts, prepping the house for guests, and cleaning up before and after gatherings.
Another study released in 2014 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of people with mental illness reported that holidays make their symptoms worse.
With Christmas and New Year celebrations having just concluded and Chinese New Year already upon us, more people could be experiencing prolonged and more intense holiday blues this year. Furthermore, offices have started reopening after nearly two years of work- from-home (WFH) and social distancing, and the prospect of more face-to-face interactions and office parties can prove daunting for some.
Two clinical psychologists: Mr Muhammad Haikal bin Jamil, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Founder of ImPossible Psychological Services (Singapore), Ms Kelly Phang, Clinical Psychologist and Wellness Coach, The Mind Psychological Services and Training (Malaysia), offer some tips on how we can overcome the holiday blues.
1. Be mentally prepared
If you consistently experience certain negative feelings around specific holidays, Phang suggests preparing yourself for this in advance. “You can set reminders for upcoming festivals or celebrations that typically trigger the blues for you. When the festival comes around and the feelings set in, acknowledge them and recognise that like everything, it will pass.”
2. Set realistic expectations
Your idea of what makes festivities joyous and abundant is often shaped by unrealistic standards as portrayed in commercials, and social media, or even by your co-workers in sales. Haikal advises, “Recognise that the festive season does not have to meet anyone's standards for perfection for it to be meaningful or joyous. If you find yourself struggling with loneliness during this time, consider engaging in activities you can derive joy from, such as a personal art and craft project to work over the holidays. Keep your expectations realistic and celebrate on your own terms.”
3. Set a budget… and stick to it!
Financial woes can be a real stressor during the holidays, especially during festivals like Chinese New Year when family members are expected to give out ‘ang pows’. Phang says that in addition to keeping track of expenses and setting a realistic budget for the festivities, it can also be helpful to explain your situation to your family.
“There are no hard-and-fast rules about how one should celebrate the holidays as everyone’s circumstances are different, especially in a pandemic where many people are struggling financially. For example, you can suggest that ‘ang pows’ this year should not exceed $30 each, no matter the seniority of the person you are giving it to. Setting a realistic budget and clarifying expectations can reduce anxiety and stress in these situations. Work on the things we can control, rather than what we cannot,” she advises.
4. Establish boundaries
The festive season is a time when family and friends come together. With offices reopening, we can expect to see more office gatherings which will include co-workers we have not met in a while, including those we might dislike or feel ambivalent about. This can cause anxiety or stress.
Very often, we feel obliged to attend gatherings even if they make us feel uncomfortable, because we wish to participate in the festive spirit and/or because it is 'mandated' by your department.
Haikal stresses on the importance of acknowledging our boundaries, and saying ‘no’ if we feel overwhelmed. “You can choose to spend the festive season the way you prefer, in the company of those you are comfortable with. If you are required to attend an office party which is not your cup of tea, recognise you can choose to leave when you start to feel anxious and to inform your colleagues or superiors in advance when you're expecting to do so. This will enable you to feel more in control of the situation.”
5. Stand up to toxic relatives or co-workers
Many well-meaning relatives or co-workers can make us feel uncomfortable with probing or unwelcome questions about our marital status, whether we intend to have children, and so on. Others can be downright narcissistic and toxic.
In such situations, it is important to be assertive and speak up, says Phang. She recommends following a simple acronym: STATE – Specify the Trigger, Affect (or emotion), Target behaviour, and Effect (or desired change). For example: “When you ask me about marriage repeatedly (ST), I feel uncomfortable (A). I’d appreciate if we could discuss something else (T) and I’ll enjoy our conversations more (E).”
“Self-respect is important. An individual with self-respect would not allow others to treat them badly and would rather not associate with those who are being disrespectful. Treat yourself the way you want others to treat you,” she adds.
6. Practise self-care
The whirlwind of parties and get-togethers, and tendency to over-indulge during the holidays can take a physical and emotional toll. “It is important to set aside some time for yourself. Try to stick to your usual routine, and incorporate regular exercise and healthy meals if you have not done so. Spending time alone doing activities we enjoy outside of the festivities can also provide some respite from the season and lift our mood,” says Haikal.
When the pandemic meets holiday blues
Social isolation is said to be one of the key triggers for the holiday blues, according to Haikal and Phang. Many may feel distressed or anxious about attending parties and get-togethers with bigger groups while keeping abreast with the safety protocols for such gatherings.
Instead of withdrawing from social interactions altogether, the experts advise to reach out and connect with individuals that make you feel comfortable, such as the co-worker who sits next to you, or those you trust beyond your regular network, such as a friendly neighbour or someone from a local volunteer group.
Some may also not feel celebratory as they are still struggling to find their footing in the pandemic. In such cases, accept that it is okay to not feel celebratory. Acknowledge your feelings about why and how you are not feeling celebratory, and then seek out trusted people to confide in and have heartfelt conversations about your situation.
While holiday blues tend to pass once the festive season is over, if the negative feelings persist or occur repeatedly throughout the year, the experts say it could be an indication of a more serious mental health issue. In such cases, and especially if they start to interfere with your daily routine, it is advisable to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
If you are in need of emotional and psychological support, you can reach out to any of the numbers below:
Befrienders Kuala Lumpur
Contact Number: 03-76272929
Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA)
Contact Number: 03-2780 6803
Contact Number: 6018-644-0247
Life Line Association
Contact Number: 03-42657995
Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH)
Contact Number: 1800-283-7019
Contact Number: 1800 377 2252
National Care Hotline
Contact Number: 1800-202-6868
( 8am - 12am daily)
Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline
Contact Number: 6389-2222
(article adapted with permission from For Life Magazine)