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Don't Let Holiday Turn Into a "Blue Christmas"

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – The chaotic pace of those last few days leading up to Christmas – along with some not so-merry family gatherings -- can bring on more emotional stress than during any other time of the year, say mental health experts in Fairfield County and across the country.

The holiday season can be filled with joy, cheer, parties and family gatherings. But for many people, it is a time of loneliness, reflection, self-evaluation and anxiety about an uncertain future, according to Mental Health America’s website.

“I think a lot of people would say that the holidays are the worst time of the year,” says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “They’re just straight up miserable, and that’s not only for people with clinical depression.”

But Duckworth and mental health specialists in Fairfield County say there are ways to manage the overload and enjoy the holidays, even in the midst of hectic schedules, parties and stressful family reunions.

“The most important thing of all is to take care of yourself and set limits,” said Nicholas Strouse, director of Westport Family Counseling, who is a licensed clinical social worker. “People often feel under pressure to make every party and holiday celebration, even when they really need some rest and to dial things back a bit.”

Here are 10 key tips on how to do that from Mental Health America, the Mayo Clinic and mental health counselors in Fairfield County.

1. Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable. Try to set realistic goals for yourself. Pace yourself. Make a list and prioritize the important activities.

2. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Don’t put the entire focus on just one day (i.e., Christmas Day). Remember that it’s a season of holiday sentiment, and activities can be spread out to lessen stress and increase enjoyment.

3. Remember the holiday season does not banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely; there is room for these feelings to be present, even if you choose not to express them.

4.  Leave “yesteryear” in the past and look toward the future. Life brings changes. Each season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. Don’t set yourself up in comparing today with the “good old’ days.”

5.  Do something for someone else. Try volunteering some of your time to help others.

6. Try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a new way. Reach out and make new friends, or contact someone you haven’t heard from in a while.

7. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

8. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are for now, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations.

9.  Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts.

10. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed.  Remember, save time for yourself! Recharge your batteries! Let others share in the responsibility of planning activities.

But therapists say if depression and anxiety is still overwhelming, contact a mental health agency, clinic, or private counselor to seek further help, and if necessary, medication can be prescribed.

They also say not to expect the end of the holidays to provide a magic cure becasue even more people experience post-holiday let down after New Year’s Day from disappointments during the preceding months.

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