Those Christmas movies featuring families gathered around a fire with a blanket of snow outside may seem idyllic, but they have little to do with reality and may even pose a danger to your mental health.
“Christmas movies, plays and television tend to be idealistic. They portray ideal situations that few people actually have and that can turn them into triggers for depression,” said Debra Wentz, president of the New Jersey Institute of Mental Health.
They amplify what people think is missing in their own lives, Wentz said. Visions of “utopia” and what the ideal vacation should be like are reinforced.
From old movies to social media, we’re set up for failure with unrealistic expectations, experts say.
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Psychiatrist Sarabjit Singh tells the story of a woman who came to him for help earlier this month. The 60-year-old salon owner spent her days styling clients’ hair for photos, family gatherings and holiday parties. Meanwhile, she was feeling worse and worse.
Her parents had died within the last few years, and her daughter was now out and starting her own life.
“This caused a lot of anxiety and sadness and looking at old photographs,” said Singh, executive medical director of behavioral health services at Saint Clare’s Health in Morris County. “From the outside it looks like he has a thriving business and is doing well.”
But the stylist, remembering the people she lost over the years and feeling lonely, was drinking to deal with the pain.
“The daughter has now moved out and is seeing someone and is going to see the boyfriend’s family for the holidays,” Singh said. Mom ended up drinking and now she’s in the hospital. “Stories like these are out there. You can imagine the pain these people are in.”
That’s particularly true this holiday season, when people are caught between the stress of inflation and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the return of maskless indoor gatherings.
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 old days or when you think about what life could have been like, you are living in the past,” Singh said. “If you are in the moment, it is when you realize that you have a pet, you have a family, a job. Looking for a silver lining may seem obvious, but it forces people to spend less time with 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. “Bringing them up to speed might even help both of them,” 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 her face as she holds the door for someone to be of great help, mental health professionals say. These little things can also improve your mood.
“You can always be there for someone. It’s all relative,” Singh said. For many, Christmas Eve, when everyone heads to see their loved ones and open presents, is the hardest, he added.
be kind to yourself
“Remember, expectations can lead to sadness,” Singh said. “I’m not telling people not to have expectations, but I am telling them to focus on the trip and the effort they are putting into making the vacation a success. You can control your efforts, but no one else. Don’t put your expectations on things you don’t control. Instead, give yourself a pat on the back for the things you’ve done.”
Don’t assume that all those smiling faces on Facebook are always smiling, and don’t assume that since they put up the Christmas decorations everything is perfect in their lives.
Set goals, celebrate successes
Finally, here are some quick tips to chase away sadness when it comes.
“Getting something always helps,” Singh said. “There is no task that is too small. One of my favorite things to tell people to do is make their bed when they get up in the morning, no matter how tired they are. It may sound silly, but it puts you in the right frame of mind.”
During the course of the day, choose a few things that you can easily do. Make a little checklist. At the end of the day, you can look back on that list and feel satisfied that you accomplished something.