Ryan Kiser, director of recovery services at Family and Childrens...

Ryan Kiser, director of recovery services at Family and Childrens Association, dreaded the holidays before he became sober. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

If you aren’t feeling very festive this holiday season, you are not alone.

Financial worries about affording holiday gifts and meals ramp up in November and December, experts say. The stress can be even higher for people who lost a loved one, are struggling with addiction or are isolated and lonely.

This all wraps up into a condition known as the “holiday blues.”

“I think it is a time of immense challenges,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, a Garden City-based nonprofit that provides services such as mental health and addiction programs across Long Island. “Emotions are high. The demands are high.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • “Holiday blues” can be caused by financial worries, stress about family and for those struggling with addiction or are isolated and lonely.
  • Almost one-third of people in the United States said they expect to be more stressed this holiday season than last year, according to a recent poll.
  • Experts suggest those struggling should volunteer, exercise, meditate, read a book or say no to a holiday party invitation you are too stressed to attend. The Long Island Crisis Center also runs a 24/7 confidential hotline at (516) 679-1111.

Almost one-third of people in the United States said they expect to be more stressed out this holiday season than last year, according to a poll recently released by the American Psychiatric Association. As for the biggest causes of anxiety, more than 50% said affording holiday gifts; 40% cited securing and finding gifts; and 39% said paying for holiday meals.

And 37% of people said “challenging family dynamics” during the holidays is a source of worry, according to the poll.

Constant images of happy families celebrating that are shared on social media also can trigger negative feelings among those who think their own experiences are not measuring up.

“The holidays have become so commercialized and so highly linked to the media, the shopping and tree lightings, candle lighting, Black Friday sales, food — it really doesn’t address the fact that it becomes a time to reflect and that’s often a solemn time,” said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of the division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Northwell Health.

“I think there’s kind of this disconnect with our language — Happy New Year and Merry Christmas — without recognizing for many people it could be the anniversary of a loss or they could be caring for a terminally ill loved one.”

Yet people are pressured to be almost “too joyous and too happy,” during the season, said Dr. Paul Garson, director of the Division of Mental Health Services at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
“The social and commercial aspects of hyping what you are supposed to be really is unfair and an unrealistic expectation for most people,” Garson said.

What to do about holiday blues

There are several ways to try and shake the holiday blues and relax. Experts suggest going outside for a walk, exercising, meditation, reading a book or saying no to a holiday party invitation you are too stressed to attend.

“Find a thing that gives you some level of peace and solace,” Reynolds said.

Finding someone to talk to, whether a friend or a counselor, also can help people from ruminating on negative thoughts.

Fornari urged people to find a meaningful way to mark the holidays.

“Some kind of community service or charitable giving can be very helpful,” he said. “It’s a wonderful time to volunteer at a soup kitchen or a hospital or a food pantry in order to give back because we know that in giving back, we receive so much more.”

Driving worries

Inflation and uncertainty about the economy are forcing more people to look for help when buying presents for their children or putting food on the table.

Reynolds said the Family and Children’s Association has received requests from about 900 families to be part of its Adopt-A-Family program — about double what it usually sees.

“I see the emails from people who can’t afford toys and presents for their kids,” he said. “They say they just want to give their kids a sense of normalcy. But how many families are struggling and not sending us emails?”

The holidays also could be a rough time for senior citizens who lost a spouse to COVID-19 or whose families have moved far away.

Stress for those battling addiction

People battling addiction may try to avoid family gatherings because hiding their struggle is too difficult.

Ryan Kiser of Babylon said he remembers how painful holidays were before he got sober in 2017.

“The holidays leading up to that were some of the most stressful times in my life,” said Kiser, 39, who is now director of recovery services at FCA. “I felt like I was performing. I almost had to show them how well I was doing.”

He overspent on Christmas gifts even though he could not afford them and “white-knuckled it” through celebrations while friends and family drank socially and he abstained.

But now in his new role, Kiser has been able to help others on their journey to sobriety celebrate the holidays in a warm and healthy environment by helping organize Christmas Day gatherings at their Thrive centers, filled with food and classic movies.

“It is a reminder to me what it’s like to be in that position,” he said. “And it is one of the most rewarding experiences.”

Daylight deficit plus holidays: 'dDouble whammy'

The winter, with its chilly, short days, is already a challenging time for people with seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression linked to the decrease in daylight hours. The lack of daylight and activity can cause people to be depressed, have a tough time getting out of bed, overeating and withdrawing socially, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The agency pointed out that some studies indicate the lack of daylight might contribute to decreased levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood.

“People who have [seasonal affective] have a double whammy,” Garson said. “They are going to get really unhappy during the holiday time.”

Tawni Engel, associate executive director of the Long Island Crisis Center, encouraged Long Islanders, young and old, to reach out and call their hotline — (516) 679-1111 — if they just want to talk to someone.

“Sometimes it's hard to reach out to family or friends when you think they aren’t going to understand what you are going through because it’s the holiday season,” she said. “Maybe they are feeling alone, feeling isolated … our counselors are trained to listen and help them through that.”

She said they have a database of services all across Long Island if people need a referral.

“People really can call,” Engel said. “It’s anonymous and confidential.”

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