Those holiday movies that show families gathered around a bonfire with a blanket of snow outside may look idyllic, but they have little to do with reality and may even be dangerous to your mental health.
“Holiday movies, plays and television tend to be idealistic. They represent ideal situations that few people actually have and that can cause them to become depressed,” said Debra Wentz, president of the New Jersey Institute of Mental Health.
They amplify what people feel is missing in their own lives, Wentz said. Ideas about “utopia” and what an ideal vacation should be are getting stronger.
From old movies to social media, we’re set up to fail with unrealistic expectations, experts say.
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Psychiatrist Sarabjit Singh offers the story of a woman who sought his help earlier this month. The 60-year-old salon owner spent her days styling clients’ hair for photos, family gatherings and holiday parties. All this time she felt worse and worse.
Her parents had died in recent years and her daughter was now living on her own.
“It led to a lot of anxiety and sadness and looking at old photos,” said Singh, executive medical director of behavioral health services at Saint Clare’s Health in Morris County. “On the surface, she appears to have a thriving business and things are going well.”
But the stylist – remembering the people she’d lost over the years and feeling alone – drank to cope with the pain.
“The daughter has now moved out and is seeing someone, and she is going to visit the boyfriend’s family for a holiday,” Singh said. Mom drank and is now in the hospital. “There are such stories. You can only imagine the pain these people are feeling.”
This is especially true this holiday season, when people are torn between the stress of inflation and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the return of indoor gatherings without masks.
But there are a few tricks to help you get through this holiday season, experts say.
Be in the moment
“Every time your brain switches to thinking about the good old days or when you think about how life could have been, you’re living in the past,” Singh said. — When you are in the moment, that’s when you realize that you have a pet, you have a family, a job. Looking for a good liner might seem obvious, but it makes people spend less time on negative feelings. Mindfulness is a classic strategy that works very well.”
Be with others
Hospitals and other organizations are always looking for volunteers. So are local churches. Don’t forget your neighbors, your cousins, your community. Talk to them. Catch up with them. “Catch up with them might even help both of you,” Singh said.
Reaching out to others is important, and it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. A minute’s conversation or a smile on your face when you hold the door for someone can go a long way, mental health experts say. These little things can also lift your spirits.
“You can always be there for someone. It’s all relative,” Singh said. For many, Christmas Eve – when everyone is going to see loved ones and open presents – is the hardest, he added.
Be kind to yourself
“Remember, expectations can lead to the blues,” Singh said. “I am not telling people not to wait, but I am telling them to focus on the journey and the efforts they are making to make the holiday a success. You can control your efforts, but no one else does. Don’t set your expectations on things you have no control over. Instead, give yourself a pat on the back for what you’ve done.”
Don’t assume that all those smiley faces on Facebook are always smiling — and don’t assume that once they’ve put up their Christmas decorations, everything in their lives is perfect.
Set goals, celebrate successes
And finally, here are some quick tips to chase away the blues, if they do come.
“Achieving something always helps,” Singh said. “There is no such small matter. One of my favorite things to tell people is to make their bed when they get up in the morning, no matter how tired you are. It might sound silly, but it puts you in the right frame of mind.”
During the day, choose things that you can do easily. Make a little checklist. At the end of the day, you can look back at this list and feel satisfied that you accomplished something.