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Guest opinion: Most wonderful time of the year?

Tips for avoiding holiday depression triggers from the Children's Health Council

By Liza Bennigson, Children's Health Council

It's hard to escape it: Christmas tunes on every radio station, red snowflake cups at Starbucks, pine trees atop every other SUV. "It's the hap-happiest season of all," right?

Not necessarily. For some, the holidays are a reminder of social anxieties, loved ones lost, or the fact that they can't just "snap out" of their angst with a grande peppermint latte.

What if the holiday party invitations aren't flowing in? What if reading your son's letter to Santa makes you wonder how you'll pay the mortgage this month? And what if all those primped and professional holiday cards make you second-guess your own life choices?

The holiday season can shine as much light on what we are lacking as what we are fortunate to have. And when we have plenty but are still lacking feelings of contentment, there's a real conflict. For those who struggle with anxiety and depression, everyone reminding you to "be of good cheer" can feel more like a slap in the face.

"Depression and anxiety aren't feelings that we can turn on and off at will," says Ramsey Khasho, director of the Center at the Palo Alto-based nonprofit Children's Health Council, which provides services for youth with anxiety, depression, ADHD and leaning challenges.

"Social media feeds filled with joyful holiday moments and festively decorated shopping malls can amplify symptoms, by making those who struggle feel more alone and less understood. Add overspending, exhaustion, gloomy weather, poor food choices, infinite shopping lists, binge drinking, and family drama, and it's no wonder why one can feel overwhelmed."

Sound familiar? Whether you have been officially diagnosed with anxiety or depression, or the holiday blues feel like those uninvited houseguests who won't go away, you're not alone. In case Martha Stewart's Tips for a Stress-Free Holiday Season ("Strategize Gift Wrapping!") don't exactly do the trick, here are a few more realistic ones:

Manage expectations

It's OK if you don't experience the same sense of unbridled joy during the holidays that you did as a child. Accept and own your reality, without comparing it to anyone else's, or your own past experiences.

Do good

Volunteering can help ameliorate feelings of loneliness by increasing social interaction, mindfulness and self-confidence. Can't squeeze the soup kitchen into an already hectic schedule? Donate a pair of pajamas or a warm coat to those in need.

"Take care of yourself

Take time taking care of YOU! Do something you enjoy, connect with someone you care about or do something to honor or in memory of someone you have lost," says Jenna Borrelli, a licensed clinical social worker at CHC. "Get outside, get some exercise, stick to your routine, eat right and get plenty of rest." (Remembering self-compassion if you slip).

Seek help

Sometimes the holiday blues are indicative of something more. To ensure short-term feelings of distress don't become long-term ones, it's important to reach out to a professional. In crisis? Reach a trained professional at Crisis Text Line 24/7 by texting 741741 from anywhere in the U.S.

Stay alert

Teens may be especially vulnerable this time of year, since they may not see the light at the end of the holiday tunnel. "Our doors are open and we have immediate support available to teens who are struggling with anxiety or depression," says Mr. Khasho, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. Not sure if your teen's angst is something to be concerned about? Keep an eye out for warning signs, and receive a free 30-minute consultation from CHC by calling (650) 688-3625.

It doesn't have to be the "most wonderful time of the year" for everyone, and it's okay to feel like Ebenezer Scrooge sometimes. But while "Mastering a Basic Cookie Dough" might improve Martha's mood, we suggest self-compassion, self-care, and knowing when to ask for help.

Liza Bennigson is the content marketing manager for the Teen Mental Health Initiative, which is associated with the Children's Health Council and provides mental health support for teens and their families.

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