Helping Family and Friends Through Holiday Stress and Winter Blues

ESH Blog
Helping Family and Friends Through Holiday Stress and Winter Blues
Individual wearing golden reindeer antlers in a thinking position looking sad and anxious
Individual wearing golden reindeer antlers in a thinking position looking sad and anxious

The holiday season is a time of joy and celebration for many people. But for some, it can be a difficult time filled with feelings of loneliness, sadness, and even depression. On top of that, winter is a time when people may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as holiday, winter, or seasonal depression. And to top it all off, the holiday season consists of family, social, and societal pressures that may amount to unrealistic expectations, which can leave your loved ones feeling overwhelmed and stressed. If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling during this time of year, you’ll probably want to be there for them and offer support.

As we approach the winter and holiday season, the Horizon Foundation is here to help you identify the common stressors that arise this time of year and how to offer your support as an emotional support human.

Identifying common holiday time stressors

For loved ones experiencing SAD, try to understand what they may be going through. Symptoms of SAD can include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of energy, as well as changes in appetite and sleep patterns. And let’s be clear – experiencing SAD is not the same as feeling gloomy about the weather and wishing for a warm and sunny day. These symptoms are serious. They can range in severity, but often interfere with a person’s ability to enjoy the holiday season, or even make it difficult to participate in day-to-day activities.

Even for those who don’t experience SAD, many potential stressors can arise during the holiday season. Some of these you may experience yourself, and some might surprise you, but all are valid. Common stressors include:

  1. Family dynamics. The holidays can bring up feelings of stress or anxiety around spending time with certain family members. It can also be a lonely time when some may be mourning a family member’s death, or missing an absent family member due to divorce, military deployment, living far away, and so forth. Your loved one’s family dynamics are unique to them, but know that the absence and presence of family during the holidays can be a stressor for nearly everyone.
  2. Time constraints. The holiday season often coincides with the end of the calendar year and can be a busy time for many people as they plan for holiday events, travel, try to meet tight deadlines at work, or simply navigate holiday traffic.
  3. Financial pressures. Many people feel pressured to spend more money than is comfortable on gifts for family and friends or feel the pressure to donate to nonprofits or charities more than they are able.
  4. Air travel. Whether it’s flying to visit family or dealing with the crowds at a busy airport and flight delays, holiday travel can be a particular strain. Navigating air travel may be even more stressful for a person experiencing an injury or disability.
  5. High or unrealistic expectations. Many people feel an expectation during the holiday season to demonstrate feelings of joy and cheer, which can be difficult to live up to if they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Understanding trauma in the holiday season

While everyone can experience these common holiday season stressors, not everyone feels their impacts in the same way. For many of us, the holiday season is a time when past traumas resurface. Or it can be a time when new ones begin. Someone who suffers from the traumatizing impacts of systemic forms of oppression like racism, homophobia, ableism, or transphobia is more likely to experience a holiday season that is stressful than someone who does not suffer under any of those oppressions or injustices. These individuals already have to manage the general stress of absorbing those traumas on a daily basis, let alone having some of them ignited through common holiday-related activities. The holiday season can magnify the likelihood of experiencing these forms of injustice, resulting in inequitable trauma.

Imagine having to share a holiday with family members or others gathered around the holiday table who make bigoted comments about you or your loved one. These experiences are not only painful and isolating, they are also truly traumatizing. On the flip side, choosing to stay home and away from painful gatherings may come with its own form of lonely and isolated feelings. We as emotional support humans alone cannot end the discrimination and violence enacted by systemic racism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia. However, we can support our loved ones with an eye toward equity and understand that some holiday stressors are deeper than surface-level.

Some resources on holiday-related trauma:

Helping someone through the holiday season

If you see a friend or family member struggling this holiday season, you can support and help them through it in several ways. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Be there for them. This is as simple as letting your loved one know that you are there for them and that you are willing to listen to them. Let them vent about their stress and concerns without judgement. This kind of presence will undoubtedly help them feel less alone and give them a sense of support. If you want to practice this kind of check-in before reaching out, try our What Would You Say tool!
  2. Offer practical assistance. Sometimes all the errands that pile up around this time can really overwhelm people. Offering practical assistance could include helping them with their holiday shopping, offering to watch their kids or their pets while they take some time for themselves, or even just offering to help with holiday preparations.
  3. Support your loved one in practicing self-care. Honor their boundaries when they choose not to partake in a stressful holiday event – they may simply need some time to themselves to practice self-care and relax. Sometimes the hardest part is just figuring out what self-care looks like. If they ask for self-care suggestions, you can try suggesting exercising, meditating, cozying up with a good book, or taking a few minutes to sit quietly and enjoy a cup of tea.
  4. For loved ones experiencing SAD, establishing a regular routine can be beneficial as it can provide structure and stability, and serve as a reminder that days with few hours of sunlight still have the same 24 hours as those with lots of sunlight. If your loved one shows signs of SAD, ask them about their sleep and eating habits. If they ask for advice, you might gently probe their options for trying a regular sleep schedule, eating healthy meals, and engaging in regular exercise. However, be careful to let them lead the conversation, and resist the urge to fix their problems or tell them what to do.
  5. Offer to join them in activities that bring them meaning and make them feel most like themselves. Follow their lead in identifying activities that cultivate feelings of connectivity to others, such as volunteering, attending holiday events, or spending time with friends and family who are more distant. Bonus points if you’re able to do these things together!
  6. Encourage them to seek professional help. As an emotional support human, you don’t have to have all the answers, and you don’t have to go it alone. Having professional help is beneficial even if things aren’t serious, but if your loved one is struggling with severe symptoms of SAD, it is important that they seek help from a mental health professional. Encourage them to make an appointment with a therapist or counselor who is experienced in helping people manage their symptoms and develop coping strategies. If you’ve found support through professional help before, or are currently receiving it, sharing your experience may help lessen fear or apprehension your loved one may be feeling.

Taking it to the next level

If you are ready to take your role as an emotional support human to the next level and want to support mental health beyond individual conversations, the Horizon Foundation has a great way for you to dive into advocacy. It’s called the Mental Health Matters Coalition, and it’s for anyone who wants to make a difference in mental health in Howard County. Visit our webpage to learn more.

You are making a difference

The holiday season can be a challenging time for many people, even while (and maybe, especially while) we are surrounded by messages of joy and cheer. By offering support, practical assistance, and encouragement for self-care, you can make a difference in the life of someone who is struggling with SAD or feeling stressed during the holiday season. Being there for them and helping them find ways to cope is easier than it seems, and your support as an emotional support human can truly help them enjoy the season to the fullest.

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