Study Warns of Rising Rates of Depression in U.S. 0:45

Editor's Note: Dr. Neha Chaudhary is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and medical director of Modern Health.

As the holidays approach, many conjure up images of the perfect gathering: comforting aromas of home feasts, harmonious laughter among friends and family, and thoughts of gratitude that slide easily down the tongue.

But for some people, this time of year seems like the exact opposite. It's a time of stress, emotional turmoil, or intense loneliness that is nothing like the traditional celebration of togetherness.

66% percent of people report feeling lonely during the holidays, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, while 64% of people with mental illness say the holidays make their condition worse. And as a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, I see these issues firsthand all too often.

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Why are loneliness and emotional stress so common this time of year? Some people may live far away from family members or may not be able to travel to see them. Others may be grieving the loss of loved ones or going through strained relationships, and the holidays can serve as a stark reminder of those losses. And for some, the holiday season brings together families who would rather be apart. Whatever the cause, the impact of the holidays on our mental health can be profound.

If this sounds familiar, you're clearly not alone. And if your experience in this season is the opposite, remember that your friends, colleagues or strangers may be having a hard time this season.


Understanding and Navigating Loneliness

While the holiday season is presented as a time for family and social gatherings, that expectation can inadvertently amplify feelings of isolation. This is true not only for those who are alone, but also for those who are surrounded by loved ones.

The problem is that loneliness is killing us, literally. According to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness is just as bad for your health as smoking every day. It can increase the risk of mental disorders, stroke, heart disease, and even premature death.

Fortunately, there are ways to cope with this feeling. If you've been feeling lonely this holiday season, the first thing you can do is recognize it and give it a name. Let yourself be carried away by the feeling as if it were a fleeting moment that will pass. If you try to resist, it will usually come back and stay longer than desired. If you let it flow through you, it will go away as easily as it came.

Then, see if you can identify the source of the feeling. Are the holidays a reminder of the loss of a loved one, or are they related to a negative experience from your childhood? Or is it that you compare yourself to others, only to feel that you don't live up to your own expectations, set by social comparison?

Once you identify what triggers the emotion, you can try talking to yourself about it with compassion, as if you were talking to a friend. Remember that it's okay to cry. Tell yourself that comparison is a distraction and put your social media aside. Or remember that you can invest in relationships if you really want to; He has some control. Or remind yourself that you can invest in relationships if you really want to: you have some control.

Finally, find ways to connect with others in the moment. Is there a friend you haven't texted in a while? A group activity you could join that gives you a sense of community? If you don't have connections to fall back on, having a brief interaction with a stranger can also work. Chat with someone outside your home or, better yet, offer to help or give something to a stranger. The sense of connection that can be generated would surprise you. And it's good for your health.

Gratitude, reflection... anger?

While the focus of this time of year tends to be on reflection and gratitude, for some people it generates a completely different feeling: anger. Anger toward family members who, when reunited, bring unresolved tensions to the surface as a group. Anger toward loved ones who abandoned them many years ago. Or anger that life isn't going as planned.

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Sound familiar? If so, put aside your self-criticism and let yourself be felt. And then do something about it. What are some respectful and constructive ways you can share your anger? Are there any conversations you can have with a loved one to work through hurt feelings from the past? If that doesn't seem feasible, consider writing down how you feel in a letter that you may never give to the other person. Sometimes, the act of taking it out of your brain and onto paper can feel like a welcome release. You can tear up the card and throw it in the trash or down the toilet, imagining that anger will leave you as you destroy the card.

Managing Stress and Pressure

Navigating the expectations and pressures imposed by society (and yourself) during the holidays can be akin to walking a tightrope. Whether it's the roast turkey or the perfect family gatherings, idealized holiday movies and social media images can create a sense of pressure that could overshadow the essence of gratitude and togetherness. Ultimately, these unrealistic standards often lead to unnecessary stress and a sense of inadequacy in many people.

To get out of the trap of comparison and endless expectations, start by acknowledging that perfection is an elusive goal and not this season's goal. Embrace imperfections. Try new rituals and routines that are relaxed, silly, and incoherent every year, just for the sake of fun.

Set boundaries with family and friends who have high expectations of you, whether it's your aunt's comments about what you should wear for dinner, your mother's criticism of your cooking, or your father-in-law's comments about how you should spend more time than you do with that part of the family. Practice beforehand what you're going to say to people when they push your boundaries.

The Christmas Blues

This holiday season will be difficult for many people, for many different reasons. If you're having uncomfortable feelings this holiday season, I encourage you to save space for them.

If you're feeling down, let go and focus on ways you can take care of yourself and your mental health, whether it's curling up under a blanket and binge-watching movies, writing in a journal, listening to music, expressing yourself through art, or calling an old friend. Recognize what you need to get through this time. And if nothing else works, seek help from a professional.

For many people, it will be the most wonderful time of the year. For others, it won't be. The more we foster a culture of empathy and understanding about all the emotions that accompany the holidays, the more we can strengthen our communities and encourage each other when needed. And this could be one of the times of the year that matters most.

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