Do the upcoming festivities make you feel blue? Two clinical psychologists share how to get through the festive season in one piece.

Not everyone is excited about festivals and holidays. For some, these can trigger feelings of irritability, anxiety, sadness, guilt, loneliness, and/or worthlessness, which can be accompanied by sudden changes in appetite and disturbed sleep patterns.

These feelings and behavioural changes can be triggered by factors, such as the death of a loved one, and/or compounded by prolonged financial uncertainty due to Covid-19 or loss of personal property to natural disasters such as the monsoon floods in Malaysia’s capital city.

With the Christmas and Chinese New Year seasons falling quite closely to one another this year, this could mean more people could experience prolonged and more intense holiday blues.

We interviewed two clinical psychologists: Mr Muhammad Haikal bin Jamil, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Founder of ImPossible Psychological Services (Singapore), and Ms Kelly Phang, Clinical Psychologist and Wellness Coach, The Mind Psychological Services and Training (Malaysia), to find out some ways that we can overcome the holiday blues.

1. Be mentally prepared

If you consistently experience certain negative feelings around specific holidays, Phang suggests preparing yourself for this in advance. “You can set reminders for upcoming festivals or celebrations that typically trigger the blues for you. When the festival comes around and the feelings set in, acknowledge them and recognise that like everything, it will pass.”

2. Set realistic expectations

Your idea of what makes festivities joyous and abundant is often shaped by unrealistic standards as portrayed in movies, commercials, and social media. Haikal advises, “Recognise that the festive season does not have to meet anyone’s standards for perfection – including your own – for it to be meaningful or joyous. If you find yourself struggling with loneliness during this time, consider engaging in activities you can derive joy from, such as a personal art and craft project to work on over the holidays. Keep your expectations realistic and celebrate on your own terms.”

3. Set a budget… and stick to it!

Financial woes can be a real stressor during the holidays, especially during festivals like Chinese New Year when family members are expected to give out ‘ang pows’. Phang says that in addition to keeping track of expenses and setting a realistic budget for the festivities, it can also be helpful to explain your situation to your family.

“There are no hard and fast rules about how one should celebrate the holidays as everyone’s circumstances are different, especially in a pandemic where many people are struggling financially. For example, you can suggest that ‘ang pows’ this year should not exceed $30 each, no matter the seniority of the person you are giving it to. Setting a realistic budget and clarifying expectations can reduce anxiety and stress in these situations. Work on the things we can control, rather than what we cannot,” she advises.

4. Establish boundaries

The festive season is a time when family and friends come together, and gatherings can include  people we have not met in a while, including those we might dislike or feel ambivalent about. This can cause anxiety or stress. Very often, we also feel obliged to attend gatherings even if they make us feel uncomfortable, because we wish to participate in the festive spirit and/or do not want to seem rude or disappoint the host.

Haikal stresses on the importance of acknowledging our boundaries, and saying ‘no’ if we feel overwhelmed. “You can choose to spend the festive season the way you prefer, in the company of those you are comfortable with. If you’re invited to a party which is not your cup of tea, recognise you can choose to leave when you start to feel anxious. This will enable you to feel more in control of the situation.”

(Left) Mr Muhammad Haikal bin Jamil, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Founder of ImPossible Psychological Services (Singapore), (Right) Ms Kelly Phang, Clinical Psychologist and Wellness Coach, The Mind Psychological Services and Training (Malaysia)

5. Stand up to toxic relatives

Many well-meaning relatives can make us feel uncomfortable with probing or unwelcome questions about our marital status, whether we intend to have children, and so on. Others can be downright narcissistic and toxic. In such situations, it is important to be assertive and speak up, says Phang. She recommends following a simple acronym: STATE – Specify the Trigger, Affect (or emotion), Target behaviour, and Effect (or desired change). For example: “When you ask me about marriage repeatedly (ST), I feel uncomfortable (A). I’d appreciate if we could discuss something else (T) and I’ll enjoy our conversations more (E).”

“Self-respect is important. An individual with self-respect would not allow others to treat them badly and would rather not associate with those who are being disrespectful. Treat yourself the way you want others to treat you,” she adds.

6. Practice self-care

The whirlwind of parties and get-togethers, and tendency to over-indulge during the holidays can take a physical and emotional toll. “It is important to set aside some time for yourself. Spending time alone doing activities we enjoy outside of the festivities can also provide some respite from the season and lift our mood,” says Haikal.

Both Haikal and Phang agree that social isolation is one of the key triggers for the holiday blues. As we venture into festivals and larger gatherings after months of social isolation, many can feel distressed or anxious about attending bigger get-togethers or keeping abreast with the safety protocols for such gatherings. Instead of withdrawing from social interactions altogether, the experts advise to reach out and connect with individuals that make you feel comfortable, even those beyond your regular network, such as a friendly neighbour or someone from a local volunteer group.

While holiday blues tend to pass once the season is over, if the negative feelings persist or occur repeatedly throughout the year, it could be an indication of a more serious mental health issue. In such cases, and especially if they start to interfere with your daily routine, it is advisable to reach out to a mental health professional for help.