Despite all the excitement that can come with the holiday season, many people experience some form of Thanksgiving blues, which entails heightened symptoms of depression, anxiety, or disconnection during November and December. Those with a mental illness may be at a greater risk for these blues. As we move into the next two months, here is your guide for coping with these emotions and getting the support you need.
What Are Thanksgiving Blues?
Even though society depicts the holidays as a 'great time' full of long-lasting, beautiful memories, reality can look quite different. There's immense pressure that exists between Halloween and New Year's Day, and you may notice that you're feeling that pressure emotionally, logistically, and financially.
Although the 'Thanksgiving blues' aren't a clinical condition, they can be exacerbated by depression, especially seasonal affective disorder. They can also result from loneliness, poor boundaries, financial distress, substance use, or spending too much time entrenched in dysfunctional family dynamics.
The main symptoms of Thanksgiving blues include:
Heightened anxiety (restlessness, panic attacks, sleep problems)
Lack of desire to spend time with loved ones
Difficulty feeling thankful despite wanting to practice gratitude
Mood swings or mood plummeting in a downward spiral fashion
Appetite changes that aren't connected to specific holiday meals or rituals
Cravings for mood-altering substances or other escape mechanisms
Persistent apathy or anhedonia
What Causes Thanksgiving Blues?
This season of life can be challenging, even for people who generally love the holidays. Like other mental health issues, experts haven't pinpointed a single cause for Thanksgiving blues. Instead, a combination of numerous factors may impact the likelihood of you experiencing stress or depression around Thanksgiving time.
Unrealistic or overly high expectations: Social media and movies have distorted how people think the holidays should be. Images of beautifully wrapped presents, loving families, and elaborate dishes can heighten a sense of FOMO and make you feel depressed if your own experience doesn't measure up.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): It's estimated that SAD impacts about 5% of the population, and it peaks during the winter time. If you struggle with SAD, it can certainly cause or exaggerate Thanksgiving blues.
Family stress: Although people often connect holidays with families, this connection can feel particularly strained during Thanksgiving. You may feel obligated to spend time with people you don't like, or you might feel guilty for opting out of certain celebrations to protect your own peace.
Loss and grief: If you are grieving a loved one (whether it's due to a death, break-up, or other kind of interpersonal rupture), the holiday season can feel even more tender. It's normal to not want to celebrate, especially if you generally spent time with that person during Thanksgiving.
Being out of your normal routine: Many people find that adhering to a routine each day helps with their mental health and emotional well-being. But the holidays tend to shift these routines- you may be traveling more than usual or spending your day much differently. While some of these changes can be exciting, they can also be stressful, and managing those fluctuations can affect your mood.
Increased substance use or overindulgence: This time of year can definitely be challenging for people in recovery. You might be surrounded by other people drinking, using drugs, overeating, or engaging in other 'indulgent' patterns during the holidays. This can be difficult to balance, and you might find yourself struggling with cravings or increased resentment.
Financial difficulties: Being able to afford the holidays can be its own stress. Around Thanksgiving, people start feeling the pressure to gear up for presents and holiday experiences. Even if you can come up with some more frugal ideas, the tendency to spend money can still be strong.
Moment-to-Moment Strategies for Holiday Difficulties
As we move closer to the holidays, it's important to be aware of your mental health and catch yourself if you're struggling with certain symptoms. There's no right or wrong way to feel, but if you're noticing that you're having a hard time, it's important to consider integrating healthy coping mechanisms.
Here are some practical strategies:
Say No to Rituals That Don't Serve You
Regardless of your family's beliefs about "what's right," there's no rule that says you must agree to do things that feel detrimental to your well-being. People can spend their lives doing what they want, but that means you can also consider your own needs. Maybe you don't want to travel across the country for dinner. Perhaps you just want to have a quiet time with your own kids. No matter what you agreed to do in the past, you're allowed to prioritize your own values now.
Make an Exit Strategy
Maybe you have already identified that spending time with your parents makes you feel anxious. Or you notice that you tend to feel lonely just after the dinner ends. Being mindful of these triggers is important, as they can help you develop effective strategies for managing them in real time. Consider how you can make an exit strategy if a stressful situation arises.
Schedule Follow-Up Self-Care
Commit to implementing self-care just after Thanksgiving day ends as a way to mitigate post-Thanksgiving blues. Maybe go see a movie by yourself or commit to writing down ten things you're grateful for. Book a massage for the weekend after or go spend some time with supportive friends that you know will help you feel better. The goal isn't to necessarily "pull" yourself out of your feelings. Instead, it's about looking after your needs at a time when you may feel vulnerable.
Stick to a Routine
As much as you can, try to adhere to your normal routine before and after Thanksgiving dinner. This gives you a sense of predictability and structure, and it can help you feel more empowered as you navigate some of your more heightened emotions.
Support for Holiday Stress, Depression, and Mental Health Issues
Thanksgiving is just a day, but the holidays can bring up all kinds of mental health problems, including complex trauma, difficult family dynamics, loneliness, sadness, and grief. You are not alone in how you feel, and you deserve to feel supported during this tender time.
At Resurface Group, we treat substance use and mental health issues. Our dynamic programs are customized based on your individual recovery needs. We are in-network with many insurance plans, and we strive to be both comprehensive and compassionate throughout our care.
Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.