“It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”


Neena Peterson

Don’t forget how tough the holidays can be for one’s mental health while trying to put on a happy face.

Or not. If I asked you to imagine what “the holidays” look like, what would you see? I bet the ringing jingle bells would accompany children frolicking around a world blanketed in snow, or people throwing their heads back with laughter as they sip hot chocolate and huddle around a roaring fireplace. While all of that picture-perfect joy may seem envious, it’s important to remember that it’s not real. Instead, we’ve chosen to neglect the reality that many people face as the weather gets colder.

According to the American Psychological Association, over 38% of people experience increased stress over the holidays due to lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings. Have you ever been worried about gift-giving or finances to celebrate properly? Does your extended family surround you constantly, demanding fresh-baked cookies and dangerous discussion topics? By constantly juggling so many different tasks, although it’s supposed to bring forth happiness for everyone, we often end up creating more of a burden for ourselves—so why do we put so much pressure on the perfect holidays or the perfect gifts and food?

If you aren’t feeling the holiday spirit, a lavish party with perfect decorations and too many guests (whether online or in-person) isn’t going to help. You can reject the expectations and lift all the weight off your shoulders with the help of one little magic word: no. I personally suggest that, instead, you sit on the coach and watch “Home Alone” with friends and family. Laugh at an 8-year old playing juvenile, yet surprisingly, effective pranks against two middle-aged robbers: it’s much more fun, objectively.

This season can be ever harder for people living with mental health issues already. 64% of those with existing mental health issues, according to a poll by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, report that their symptoms of depression and anxiety escalate in the midst of this cheerful time (or rather, because of it). Imagine that, one day, your mood is feeling impossibly low, but a myriad of people try to cheer you up with an increasingly annoying smile on their faces, waiting impatiently for you to match it. There’s no need for that pressure to build and risk explosion—which is why mental health maintenance is so important right now.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that we all be mindful of our limits this season, especially if you find yourself struggling. If a party is creating more stress than enjoyment, don’t go because you have to—remember the magic word! The prospect of the holidays is so “happy” in the first place because of the opportunity to spend time with family and friends, but if this doesn’t bring you joy (or your family is being particularly intolerable), take a break and do something for yourself.

If you need some new ideas as to how, volunteering can be a big help to stave off the holiday blues: it feels good to give back and simultaneously take your mind off whatever is plaguing you for just a moment. I’m ashamed of how little I’ve given back this year, but helping out at the Loudoun LINK food drive or organizing my own in past years has made me feel just a tiny bit better about the state of the world and, in turn, myself. Believe me, I know how selfish it may sound, but everyone has to be a little selfish sometimes.

For those who’ve experienced familial upheaval or lost loved ones, especially in the wake of COVID-19, the grief can be hard to bear as memories with them pop up while doing the winter activities they cherished. Despite the pressure to face it alone, self-isolation can sink you deeper into a hole while someone stands right beside you, waiting to pull you out. It’s important to keep in mind that traditions change, and change is good for us, so embracing it little-by-little will help with the sting.

Although I struggle to keep my cheerful smile plastered on during the holidays too, it’s a lot easier to remember the true spirit of their origins. No, it’s not the pressure of the commercial industry to buy expensive gifts or to wear Santa hats and go caroling like a perfect embodiment of the holiday spirit. It’s simple: we get to be around the people we love and celebrate another year around the sun (or in some cases, that this trip around the sun is ending), so it’s okay to be really happy or really sad or anything between. If there’s anything to be thankful for in the next month, what about the pretty lights on all the houses?