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A Stanford Psychiatrist Gives Her Tips to Beating the Holiday Blues

5 doses of sanity to get you through your holiday shopping, traveling, and bonding - or lack of

Americans are deeply conflicted about matrimonial commitment, something the holidays amplify. 51% of American millennials are single and over half of never married adults would prefer to be married. But, only 17% of married Americans are happy and 4 out of 10 have considered divorce. With so much dissatisfaction on both sides, I ask Stanford Hospital’s Dr. Amy Alexander for advice to get us over the holiday hump.  

Alexander tells me, “Relationships are hard. They are not easy to establish and tough to maintain.” Despite the availability of dating apps and matchmaking services, perennial singles understand too well the barriers of finding someone you want to grow with, someone who must also want the same with you – and layered on top, both people being ready to commit. And the 40% US divorce rate shows that even when couples think they’ve found the right person to build a life together, the connection and or will to stay together can disintegrate over time.

Rejecting cheery stereotypes. One pitfall to avoid is the cultural expectation of holiday cheer marketed by movies and advertisements. Alexander advises, “Set realistic expectations and ignore ads that tell you to be happy all the time.” Like any other time, some days are good, others bad. More opportunities to interact with family and friends realistically means we should expect arguments to flare up. Alexander advises we ignore the impossible expectations portrayed in holiday movies and recognize that feeling blue or irritated with loved ones during the holidays is as normal as feeling as festive.   

Making Healthy Resolutions. Another pitfall to avoid is setting skewed New Year’s resolutions. Social expectations, extra glasses of wine, and the imminent arrival of January 1 fuel reflections of desired life changes. For example, year after year, finding a relationship is a popular resolution. The self-help route through social apps has resulted in millions of connections. But what if you have an underlying condition like depression or trust issues that prevent you from forming attachments beyond the mechanics of meeting someone? What if you and your partner are deadlocked in in-law strife and you are unsure of the next step? How can we set resolutions that will actually improve our lives?  

Alexander advises, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” This can be a bitter pill to swallow for people who self-identify as problem solvers and who grew up hearing from parents and teachers that we should be independent and self-reliant. Applying her advice intersects with her next two tips. 

Pay Attention to Self Care. From the mad dash to finish all work before heading out of office to getting gifts and meals ready for family events, the holidays are more chaotic. This can trigger or exacerbate existing health conditions like anxiety, panic disorder, and depression, which are separate issues that can present together. Milder cases can be treated with talk therapy but sometimes, medications are also needed to help a patient move forward. 

Alexander shares two separate pieces of advice to cope with the busyness. At the basic level, check to make sure you get enough sleep, eat well, and get enough exercise and indulge in down-time like TV or meditation – all of which uplift emotional well-being. But if the stresses of holiday activities – or lack of festivities – trigger acute distress, self care also means taking steps to seek professional help when you can’t overcome problems on your own.

Know When to Seek Experts. When and who should you seek help from? “There are no hard and fast rules,” says Alexander. She notes she sometimes sees an influx of patients at the start of some new years, possibly due to negative experiences from the holidays. Anxiety and panic disorders are more common than depression but the three share similar manifestations. Changes in sleep, food, and moods that last longer than a couple weeks can be tell tale signs of a condition worth a check-in with a general practitioner or therapist.  

Balancing Extra Kids Time. Kids add more activities for the holidays. Attending school performances, gift shopping for teachers, decking the halls, and extra childcare during school shutdown add to parenting schedules. Making room for childcare, extended family visits, catching up with friends, and the occasional sneak peak at work requests is a juggling act that can get overwhelming. Going back to self-care, Alexander advises parents to give themselves some leeway by accepting help from relatives and if needed, hiring babysitters, to take a breather in between the madness.  

Putting expert advice into practice: Though these well-being tips seem simple, applying them hinges on self-awareness, which is more art than science. Catching ourselves before the downward spiral is hard. In my case, I’m making this December better by challenging stubbornly guarded notions of self-protection.

Basically, I’m A/B Testing Hurt. Since after college, my descent into holiday dread starts when the Thanksgiving leftovers vanish and clothes fit snugger. That signals the start of an unbearably drawn-out break where my cozy single person quietude and homebody ways became enabling liabilities. 

This year, I am doing the holidays differently. It’s been 2 years in the making made possible by gambling on starting my own business. Though that meant less financial certainty, it’s provided more time to think – about doing impactful work, creating value, and discovering what brings me joy. Consulting taught me to seek fulfillment and embrace the moment. If I win a project – let’s go! If a door closes, another will open. Through it all, I’m creating experiences built around love. 

I’ll still hurt. There won’t be a kiss under the mistletoe, a reason to put out milk and cookies for Santa, waking up next to someone special on New Year’s Day. Even though it hurts, I went to a few friends’ family parties and found peace in seeing happy kids and couples. I invited my family over for “Sunday dinner” a couple weeks ago, the kind I always imagined making with a husband present. I trimmed my first Christmas tree in two decades last week at a holiday gathering. Though I’m perfectly content to watch football and read the weekend away, post-Thanksgiving, I co-started a wine tasting event equal-distant from San Francisco and the South Bay to connect wine lovers around the Bay Area. 

Despite the financial uncertainties of consulting, I splurged on a crystal-studded dress because it’s stunning and dramatic, the last in my size and of all places located in New Orleans – a city I’d love to visit immortalized as the setting for The Awakening, A Streetcar Named Desire, and the Saints’ home games. As for the tricky Christmas week, I’ll split it between family, friends, and business planning.

And I’ll keep on going – exploring all the forms of love that I can give and receive. That’s not to say everything’s rosy from now on. I teared up as recently as yesterday because the holidays ARE hard. But I’m realizing the life I’m making is full and beautiful. And it’s possible that if I do get my person and my schedule is no longer solely mine, I may look back on these unstructured single days as the good ole days.

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