'It's OK to be selfish' — and other tips to beat the holiday blues

If Christmas holidays leave you more blue than a merry shade of green and red, you're not alone — many mental health professionals say they see more and more people in distress this time of year.

Practical advice for those who don't always find the season bright

Mental health professionals get busier around the stressful Christmas holidays, they say. (RonTech3000/Shutterstock)

If Christmas holidays leave you more blue than a merry shade of green and red, you're not alone — many mental health professionals say they see more and more people in distress this time of year.

"I generally expect an increase in calls around Christmas," says Dr. Christine Beck, a clinical psychologist who practises in Charlottetown. "My clients that I have tend to face more of their challenges when Christmas comes — be it financial, family, social, time management — just addressing the things they hope might happen over the holidays." 

Don't bite off too much over the holidays. It's really important to say no.— Dr. Christine Beck

"Christmastime brings up a lot of difficult times," agrees Shelly Murphy, a clinical social worker and therapist who runs MIND/shift Workplace Wellness and Counselling in Charlottetown.

"People are struggling with various issues and looking for some ways to cope through the season." 

1. Don't minimize your feelings

Rather than trying to distract yourself or ignore your blue feelings, Beck advises you should listen to them. 

Shelly Murphy, a clinical social worker and therapist in Charlottetown with her master's in social work, runs MIND/shift Workplace Wellness and Counselling. (Submitted by Shelly Murphy)

"What I think is most important is for people to pay attention to their emotion," she said. "In our culture we tend to suppress those things and not value what they can tell us."

If you're feeling sad — feel it, and express it to those you care about, Beck suggests. "That often can help people understand more about themselves and get what they need out of their relationships and their life." 

2. Set boundaries

"Don't bite off too much over the holidays," Beck suggests. "It's really important to say no." 

Those boundaries include finances, Murphy says — she hears about financial strain from her clients at Christmas, and advises them "not to try to 'keep up,' with the consumerism of the season but rather look at what's important to them during the holidays such as spending time with family. 

"I ask people to examine their values around Christmas and try to bring them back to what it is they want to achieve from the holidays," she says. "Take a look at what it is you can manage, and putting that into action." 

Boundaries can also apply to the length of time spent with family, as well as drinking too much and over-eating — set boundaries and try to stick with them. 

"You can't do it all," Murphy says. Keep expectations of a perfect, magical Christmas realistic and balanced. 

3. Practise self-care

"Prioritize things that are good for you," Beck advises. "Go slower than you might expect you should, commit to fewer things." Focus on doing things that improve your mood and energy, she says.

Dr. Christine Beck, a clinical psychologist who practices in Charlottetown, advocates acknowledging your feelings and putting yourself first if you're feeling stressed during the holidays. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

"It's absolutely OK to be selfish — I consider that to be self-care," Murphy says. 

"I am one of those people who struggle around Christmastime," she admits. "And I've done the going-everywhere and am exhausted at the end of the day, and I've done the no-doing-anything, and feeling alienated." 

Getting enough sleep and exercise is important to getting through the holidays. "The Christmas holidays can be a week-long to two-week-long experience and can take a lot of energy," Murphy says. 

Being aware of what experiences overwhelm you is half the battle, Murphy adds — see the next step for more on that. 

4. Be mindful

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword in psychotherapy recently. Short bursts of meditation, or being "in the moment," can help people understand their feelings, Beck says. 

'You can't do it all,' reminds clinical social worker Shelly Murphy. (Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock)

Beck explains how to be mindful: set aside a little time and choose something to focus on that is stimulating or interesting to you. Try to focus on that one thing, be it for 30 seconds, five minutes, or longer. 

"If you're in the woods, you could just stop your walk for a minute and listen to the trees, listen to the wind blowing through the leaves," Beck says. "If thoughts come into your mind, you're supposed to just sort of say — 'Hello, there you are, but off you go!' Move them out, without getting upset with yourself."

With practice, the goal is to become more aware of your mind, body and emotions, Beck says. 

Being more present can help you enjoy some holiday interactions such as family gatherings or parties.

"If you focus mindfully on the moment-to-moment aspects of your time with them, you may actually enjoy parts that sometimes are harder to pay attention to," Beck says.  

Murphy explains it this way: not fretting about the past or fearing the future will help you get the most out of the moments you might want to some day cherish.

There are apps for mindfulness and meditation, and even a course on mindfulness at UPEI, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

5. Find supports

"Christmastime brings back a lot of memories, and I think the biggest exacerbator of stress is memories around loss — whether that be loss of finances, loss of a family member, and just feeling alone," said Murphy.

Peer support or meet-up groups with like-minded people can help lonely or stressed people get through the holidays, suggests Murphy. (JHershPhoto/Shutterstock)

Whether your supports are your gym buddies, a mommy or coffee group or a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous, Murphy suggests people find peer support groups and stay connected during the holidays, rather than isolating yourself like you might want to.

If you need to talk to someone urgently, call a helpline such as the Island Helpline at 1-800-218-2885 — it's free, confidential emotional support and crisis intervention.

If you believe you might have depression, anxiety or other mental illness or disorder, seek diagnosis and possible treatment starting with your family doctor, Beck advises. 

"If you have sadness that interferes with your ability to get to work or to connect with people, then it's probably at a level that deserves some attention," Beck says. 

If you're interested in learning more about depression, anxiety and more, Beck is organizing free talks for the Psychology Association of P.E.I. at the Confederation Centre Public Library throughout the month of February.

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca