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Holiday Anxiety, cope, depression

Holiday Anxiety & Depression: 4 Science-Backed Ways to Cope

By Simon Spichak, MSc | December 20th, 2021

It is OK to feel stressed, anxious or sad this time of year. Try these science-backed- strategies to help disengage with unwanted thoughts and boost your mood. 

The holidays aren’t a happy time for everyone. They can be a challenging reminder of our medical, financial or family problems. For families navigating medical diagnoses like Alzheimer’s, these problems often hit home, especially this time of year.

While everyone’s Alzheimer’s experience is unique, there are several psychological strategies to deal with the anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts that may crop up. Science suggests that coping with holiday dread — rather than ignoring it and putting on a smile — may be healthier and more psychologically rewarding in the long term.

1: Practice Gratitude

Reflecting on the things that you are grateful for can literally make you feel better. One of the largest studies on gratitude was conducted on 1,337 participants, confirming that even a small intervention may prove meaningful. 

In the experimental group, participants had to write down five things they were grateful for over a span of two weeks. Compared to participants that were asked to recall neutral or negative events or thoughts, the gratitude group increased positive mood and feelings.   

Practicing gratitude is simple. According to psychologist Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, this process involves identifying something we are grateful for, appreciating their external sources and the specific benefits we received. For example: “I am thankful for the squirrels in my yard because I like watching them bury their nuts.” You can also provide a meaningful compliment using the same formula: “Thank you for making me coffee. I like how you remember exactly how much cream and sugar to put in, each time.”

2: Disengage with Intrusive Thoughts

“My loved one is ignoring my calls on purpose.”

“My house isn’t clean enough for guests.”

“I’m going to ruin the holidays.”

Sound familiar? Almost everyone experiences unwanted or anxious thoughts. They manifest as a nagging voice in your head, one that might make you question your abilities and self-worth. According to researchers, these unwanted thoughts are universal; but they can also be worsened by stress.

Focusing on ignoring, blocking or rebutting these thoughts doesn’t break the loop of rumination: According to clinical psychologist Michael J Greenblatt, the key is to let these thoughts pass rather than engage with them. There are several strategies to help but it takes practice. Direct your attention elsewhere, let the intrusive thought pass by, or acknowledge them without actively engaging, Greenblatt says.

3: Take Time to Recharge Your Social Batteries

The holiday times are filled with social activities with family and friends. But even the most extroverted person among us needs time to recharge. This may be as simple as saying “no” to the fifth social gathering of the day, or excusing yourself from a conversation or get-together to go for a short walk. According to research by psychologists Sointu Leikas and Ville-Juhani Ilmarinen at the University of Helsinki, many people feel depleted after three hours of social interaction. Learn to recognize when you’re feeling exhausted, and take the time to take care of yourself. 

4: Small, Random Acts of Kindness

Science suggests reaching out through a simple phone call, sending a random message to tell someone you care about them, making a small donation, or helping a stranger in need can make a difficult day a little more enjoyable. That’s because the human brain may be wired for empathy and social interactions by default: According to studies, compassionate actions appear to activate the brain’s reward system, which may, in turn, quell feelings of fear, stress and anxiety. 

While there is a lot of stress and pressure during this time of year, remember it’s OK to feel overwhelmed, sad or anxious. We hope these strategies are useful for managing your mental health during the holidays.   

Want to learn more about clinical trials
for Alzheimer’s and dementia?
Check out the Lilly Trial Guide.

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