The Mental Health Experts’ Guide to Surviving the Holidays

December 19, 2017

Are you overwhelmed yet? The week leading to Christmas in particular can be stressful for many, sometimes leading to anxiety and depression well into the New Year.

Psychiatrists Arash Javanbakht, M.D., director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research and Clinical Program, and Linda Saab, M.D., both assistant professors at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, note that the holiday blues can overlap with Seasonal Affective Disorder brought on by lack of sunshine and less daylight in the fall and winter. Either can turn into real mental health struggles. “This is certainly a normal reaction, but it is important to realize what to do about it. If your holiday blues turn into day-to-day impairments beyond typical stress, it may be time to seek more help,” Dr. Saab said.

Five tips for making your holiday both merry and bright:

1. Acknowledge why you are anxious or sad. “From bad relationships and personal losses to memories of traditions both positive and negative, this can be a really hard time of year for people,” Dr. Saab said. And, “There are also a lot of obligations from a social standpoint, and financial obligation as well, since the holidays are associated with gift-giving,” Dr. Javanbakht added.

2. Set limits and boundaries for financial, emotional and social obligations. Keep to them privately, or share these limits with family and friends. Don’t be afraid to say no.

3. Volunteer. Homeless shelters, animal shelters, hospitals and nonprofit charities are always looking for a helping hand. “You’re not alone, you’re giving in a way that’s really meaningful, but you’re not overextending yourself,” Dr. Saab said. “Altruism is a very good defense mechanism.”

4. Do something new. Change the tradition if that’s what’s causing the angst or grief, or even consider getting a pet. “For some people, when a personal loss is a big trigger, one way to re-frame that is to start a new tradition. Go to a different venue or take a trip with family,” Dr. Javanbakht said. “This time of year, I see a lot of my patients get in a better mood when they get an animal because of the nature of caring for another being that’s always grateful for it.”

5. Reshape expectations to match reality. Focus on what you have, not on what you don’t. “A lot of times we have a bias to positive things we lost, but not the bad things. And, for some people it’s the opposite. I’ve had patients who hated the holidays because of bad past experiences,” Dr. Javanbakht added.

The doctors are available for appointments in Detroit at 313-577-1396 and in Livonia at 734-464-4220.

For people with severe symptoms, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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