“I’ve had three ex-boyfriends reach out to me in the past two weeks,” a friend complained to me as we rolled up our yoga mats after class. “What is it about the holidays that makes people weird like that?”
It’s a strange phenomenon that seems to happen around this time of year. General malaise. A sense of ennui. A nostalgic longing to inexplicably call up an old flame. As the year comes to a close, it’s a time for many to reflect on what’s happened in the past 12 months—good or bad. Combined with the fact that holiday travel and family face time isn’t always the most relaxing combo, the holiday season is one that many face with dread.
Forty-five percent of people admit to feeling anxiety or depression around the holidays—which means nearly half of us are a little less “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and a little more “Blue Christmas.”
There are a lot of reasons that seasonal depression strikes harder during these next few weeks—but thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to diminish feelings of Yuletide woe.
Take time for yourself
During a season in which the emphasis is placed on taking care of others, it can be tough to think about number one. Taking the time to rest and recover is so important to maintaining peace of mind (and inner peace) during this chaotic time of year. Whether it’s heading to the gym for some solo time on the treadmill, spending a few hours at a museum or gallery, or enjoying 30 minutes with a new book, everyone deserves time to recharge their batteries.
Mourn the past if you need to
There’s a reason that pesky ex keeps calling—this season often reminds us of what we’ve lost, or how things have changed from year to year. According to dating and relationship coach Daniella Rosales-Friedman, it’s pretty common to feel a little blue about past relationships come December.
“So many people get super nostalgic. They’ll remember that past lover who was so romantic, so beautiful, so dangerous, even if they’re in a stable relationship now.” But Rosales-Friedman warns that typically, we only recall the good stuff—and overlook the glaring reasons the relationship didn’t work out. And that’s why reminiscing about an ex can be fun: “You only remember the positives, like how sexy or desired you felt when you were with that person. You think, I was crazy, I was cool, I was a rockstar once! And that can feel really far off when you’re sitting at home with your parents in a lumpy holiday sweater.”
The trick is, reaching out to that ex (or responding to their Yuletide advances) pops the bubble. “Don’t reach out. Your nostalgia isn’t real life, and that old relationship should only live in the very sweet, safe, empowered place of your mind,” says Rosales-Friedman. Her general rule: Be kind to yourself and to your ex. If you know you’ll feel bad about learning about their new significant other, or feel like they’ll draw you back in, it’s okay to end the conversation fast. Think you’ve moved on? It’s fine to respond with an email—but keep your encounter digital, not in person.
Schedule a sweat session
Fitting in a workout might be the single best thing one can do to combat seasonal depression. The power mood-boosting endorphins combined with the positive benefits of exercise—improved fitness, glowing skin, better sleep—are enough to make anyone feel a little more optimistic. Pencil in at least 30 minutes of moderate activity four times a week for best results. (Need some inspiration? Check out our 10-minute cardio workout here!)
Go easy on the sugar
It’s true. Eating one gingerbread cookie might be an easy way to shake off a holiday funk. But the key is sticking just one. “The times we overeat most are when we’re anxious and stressed. A relaxed eater has natural control,” explains Emily Rosen, director of the Institute of the Psychology of Eating. “A stressed eater produces more cortisol—our main stress hormone—and cortisol desensitizes us to pleasure.” That explains why the first bite of warm apple pie always tastes the best—and why the third slice isn’t necessary.
OD-ing on too much sugar has negative physical side effects, too. Blood glucose levels that reach dangerous heights are directly linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. And that’s not to mention sugar’s impact on the brain: According to the Mayo Clinic, diet and depression are inextricably linked, and those who eat a diet high in processed meat, chocolates, sweet desserts, fried food, refined cereals are more likely to report symptoms of depression. Try chilling out when it comes to the dessert table in order to keep moods more stable. Rosen’s recommendation? “All you need to do to catalyze the relaxation response before a meal is take six to10 long slow, deep breaths without distraction. So breathe deep, take your time with meals, savor each bite, go slow, stay present, and celebrate!”
Get some sunlight
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, strikes 10 to 20 percent of people every winter, and even though its acronym is kind of laughable, it's serious. SAD has all the trappings of depression, with a few extra symptoms like irritability, tiredness, difficulty getting along with others, hypersensitivity, oversleeping, weight gain, and appetite changes, especially craving foods high in carbohydrates. Explains that gingerbread craving, right?
Head outdoors to instantly fight SAD symptoms, or try supplementing with melatonin. Researchers with Oregon Health and Science University found that a number of those with SAD responded well to taking oral melatonin supplements.
Most of all, remember that as picturesque as these holidays are, they don’t need to be perfect. Cut yourself a little slack, and try not to stress if the apple pie is dry or your Secret Santa is accidentally revealed early—think about enjoying your time instead of dreading it.
Illustration by Foley Wu