The holidays magnify everything. They can make folks feel very, very good. They can also make them feel very, very bad. You may be fine with your single status the rest of the year, if every so often you do wish it was otherwise. But when the family gets together, multiple repetitions of, "So why aren't you married yet?" can turn anybody sour. A job that, like most, occasionally gets a little boring becomes mindless drudgery compared to the electrifying careers your same-aged cousin and much younger niece rhapsodize about. But you don't have to extend a holiday invitation to the blues. Experts have solid advice to fend them off. Try these tips:
1. Set realistic expectations. "If you have a history of difficulties with family, don't expect them to magically get better as a result of the holiday season," says Michael Thase, director of the mood and anxiety disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Anticipating and accepting that the holidays may be difficult prepares you mentally, and you can stop blowups before they happen. If get-togethers have a history of problems, whether it's just a lot of bickering or outright drunkenness or abuse, start with an advance phone call and lay down some ground rules, like requiring that someone be assigned to watch Uncle Ralph and make it harder for him to down his traditional multiple six-packs. "If you know Aunt Sally is going to needle you about the fact that you're 35 and you're still single," says Michael Leslie, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Boston, "figure out in advance how you want to deal with it." Limit your time with her or simply leave.
2. Opt out. If you do leave a gathering, have a backup. Let your friends know ahead of time you might want to join them for dinner or on their night out instead of suffering through family arguments. Or you could just snub the holiday altogether, and that's fine, says Thase. "If wearing the hat and bells and such is not for you, make sure you're engaged and involved in the things you do enjoy. If you can't get into this particular festive spirit, plan an alternative get-together with other kindred spirits."
3. Don't be so hard on yourself. Regardless of what carolers, movies, and commercials lead you to believe, a perfect holiday exists only in a fantasy world. "People tend to carry really high expectations for how a holiday should—and I sort of underline the word should—be," says Leslie. "That it should be like a Norman Rockwell holiday celebration. People often work themselves to the bone to try to make that happen, and feel very disappointed when it falls short." You know the in-laws will applaud your food and ooh and aah over the decked-out tree. Bask in their praise. If they really don't mean it, so what?
4. Take care of yourself—physically and mentally. First, give yourself a break. "We work very hard much of the year, and this is a time just to sit back and take it easy," says Charles Reynolds, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Get lots of rest—sleep deprivation can affect your mood greatly, says Ian Cook, director of the depression and research clinic program at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Eat a few more vegetables to make up for the extra slice of pie, say no to an extra cup of eggnog (it's not just the calories; it's also that alcohol is a depressant), and get off your butt for some kind of exercise, even if it's just to circle the block a few times. And if you find yourself slipping into sadness around this time of year, "laughter is good medicine," says Cook. Watch a funny, mindless movie like the just-departed Leslie Nielsen's "The Naked Gun" or Will Ferrell's "Anchorman."
5. Help others. Older folks in nursing homes would love to see you, soup kitchens and shelters always need another hand, and the kids could use another role model at school. It's a win-win: They get your help and you get much-needed perspective on your hardships and gratification for doing something good, experts say. "It's hard to feel, in a sense, sorry for yourself or bad about yourself," says Reynolds. "Rather you feel like you're doing something worthwhile for others, and that helps you to feel better."
6. Remember, they're not as happy as you think they are. People are "prone to overestimate how well or happy or successful other people are and underestimate how well we ourselves are," says Dan Iosifescu, director of Mount Sinai Medical Center's mood and anxiety disorders program. That can have a lot to do with making you feel inadequate, he says. Keep those thoughts out. No one is without troubles, and you're often more fortunate than you think when you're down and out.
7. Try something new. The brain responds well to novelty, says Cook. Get out of your routine and take up a new hobby. Travel to a new part of the country or even an unfamiliar part of your town. Join a community group.
8. Don't stew. "Make the most of what actually is," says Leslie. You cannot undo the last decade of disappointing Hanukkahs or Christmases; try to be as present and forward-looking as possible. Talk to a clergy member, a friend, a sibling, or a parent if you need a reminder.
9. Monitor yourself. There are blues, and then there are blues. See a doctor immediately—or if you can't bring yourself to do that, ask a trusted person to call for you—if any of the following describes you:
- You find yourself miserable or crying for hours most days.
- You're sleeping far longer or are unable to sleep at all.
- You can't make yourself eat.
- You have trouble getting through familiar routines.
- Worst of all, you've had thoughts about killing yourself.