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How Can Egyptians Stay Away From Holiday Blues: A Therapist’s Advice

December 6, 2022
Photo credit: The Healthy
Photo credit: The Healthy

As the holiday season fast approaches, excitement builds for the Christmas decorations, the parties and gatherings, and the cozy winter nights. But while some enjoy the season, others see it as a time of intense pressure and stress. Whether in Egypt or abroad, many are triggered by the holiday season, and begin to suffer feelings of anxiety or depression, making it an overwhelming period for them.

Egyptian Streets reached out to Khaled Salaheldin, an Egyptian counseling psychologist, about identifying symptoms of holiday blues, tips on avoiding them, and whether they are common among Egyptians. Salaheldin is a counseling psychologist at Serenity Psychology Center, Nūn Center, and O7 Therapy. In addition to his Cairo-based work, he also works online with clients living abroad.

What are holiday blues and seasonal depression? Are they different from each other?

Holiday blues and seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), are two sides of the same coin. The distinction here is the level of intensity and the duration that it persists in the person’s experience.

It is also important to mention that holiday blues are a short-term and temporary experience (usually anxiety and depression) that starts around the fall and ends right after the new year as a result of added stress, unwanted negative memories associated with the season, and certain expectations that can often be unrealistic and lead to disappointment. SAD, on the other hand, is a diagnosable condition that is a form of depression that has a seasonal pattern that either appears around winter or for some people around the summer season. Symptoms of this condition usually last four or five months per year and sometimes it can last longer for others.

What are their symptoms?

Holiday blues are characterized by temporary feelings of fatigue, tension, frustration, sadness, isolation, and possibly feelings of loss and grief. Moreover, SAD can be found to have overlapping symptoms with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), our typical idea of depression.

These symptoms can include but might not necessarily all be present: changes to what your “normal” is, feelings of being depressed most of the day, sudden loss of interest in activities that you enjoy, weight fluctuations, sleep disturbances, low energy, increased sense of hopelessness and worthlessness, an inability to focus properly, and ideation about death, suicide, and substance use. Winter-specific SAD symptoms are also important to mention here: oversleeping, overeating with a recurrent craving for carbohydrate-heavy foods, weight gain, and increased social withdrawal.

How can we identify whether these feelings are holiday blues or just bad days?

I think that one’s context is vital to consider here. It is important to consider our own history with the holidays and to be mindful of what is going on in the moment. Taking it day by day and monitoring ourselves would be a helpful way to tell if it is holiday blues or not. Monitoring ourselves in terms of thought content and the accompanying feelings can tell you a lot about the origin of what is upsetting you or causing you distress. It can be helpful to break down the events that brought about this distress to further investigate the source of those feelings.

For example, a lot of people experience increased feelings of mourning and grief when the holidays come around because it might be the first time they go through the holidays without a loved one or they remember their loved ones in times of celebration. It is best to contextualize yourself and understand your feelings and what might be causing you this stress.

Are holiday blues and SAD linked to having anxiety or depression, or can anyone suffer from them?

As mentioned before, both are related. Holiday blues are experienced by a lot of people, but SAD is not experienced by all of those. A factor that can contribute to the possibility of its incidence is the existence of previous mental health issues. Another factor to consider is the intersectional view of mental health, whereby factors such as race, class, gender, and much more can contribute to the likelihood of the existence of conditions that exacerbate the symptoms that people experience and increase their vulnerability to such a condition. If you have a history of depressive episodes, for example, then it is likely that you might experience symptoms of SAD.

In your opinion, are they common phenomenons among Egyptians, whether in Egypt or abroad?

I think that it is a common phenomenon among Egyptians. I see it a lot in my practice where clients come and explain how there have been shifts in their day-to-day due to the changes in the weather. Egyptians living abroad can also notice a huge transition because of how drastically different the weather is abroad than in Cairo.

Moreover, I think that there are a lot of people who have developed a schedule that starts much later in the day, which can lessen their chances of being in sunlight. This reduction of sunlight can alter people’s circadian rhythm, which is responsible for sleep and alertness. It can also lower serotonin levels, which is [a chemical in the brain associated with mood regulation]. This, in turn, can lead to mood changes and can increase the possibility of experiencing depressive symptoms like sleep disturbances.

Another phenomenon that is associated with the holidays, especially in Egypt, is the reunion with family members and people that you might not want to see or meet. These people might give us unsolicited opinions, unwanted comments on our bodies and lives, or engage us in debates about politics and sensitive topics. These conversations can often be distressing and lead us to feel invalidated and singled out. This can further add to the anticipatory stress associated with the holidays and can be a source of stress for so many people.

Another source of stress is the culture of comparison that we have come to see when it comes to holiday parties and outings that are done. People often feel the pressure to throw the “perfect” party, to have the “best” food, and give the “perfect” gift. This tendency to engage in perfectionist thinking and behaviors when preparing can contribute to overall stress. There is also a lot of emphasis on commercialism, and this can add to the pressure of spending more and doing things in excess, adding to the financial burden of the holidays.

A traditional Christmas eve dinner in Egypt
Photo credit: Egyptian Streets

What should people do if they feel like they’re suffering from holiday blues, and how can they avoid it?

There are a lot of different small changes we can do to avoid falling into, as well as coping with the holiday blues. To begin with, I think it’s important to be mindful of your routine, habits, and mood to understand what contributes to their disruption, duration, and impact. Sustainability and consistency are keywords here. It is not about doing things you need to do perfectly, but more about doing it in succession as much as you can.

– Go to therapy if needed and possible.

– Try and stick to your routine as much as you can.

– Get enough sleep and have a consistent sleep schedule when applicable. Sleep hygiene is essential for stress reduction.

– Try to find a balance between having time for yourself and spending time with people that you care about and care about you.

– Practice intuitive eating and drinking. It is important to be mindful of what you consume during the holiday season, especially since, culturally, Egypt is a culture that celebrates excess consumption of food during the holidays.

– If you drink alcohol, it is important to limit it if you are experiencing any feelings of being down.

– Incorporate movement into your day, even if it is as simple as a short walk, especially in the morning.

– Exercise can be beneficial for curtailing the experiences of holiday blues.

– Make a list on your phone or your notebook to keep track of the things that you need to do. This adds structure to your day and helps lessen the stress of having plans for the holidays.

– Learn to be mindful of your expectations about the holidays. It can help with setting more realistic and achievable goals about the activities you need to do during the holidays.

– Be mindful of your spending and set a budget for your holiday shopping. Financial stress can be a big contributor to stress, especially with everything going on with the economic state of the world and Egypt.

– Remind yourself that holiday blues are short-term. Take it day by day and one step at a time.

– Practice setting boundaries and saying “no”. Saying “yes” to all the events you are invited to and overscheduling yourself can cause stress and anxiety during the holidays.

– Practice setting boundaries by trying to maneuver difficult conversations and limiting participation in debates if they are distressing to you.

– Acknowledge and honor your feelings of grief or sadness and allow yourself to feel difficult emotions instead of forcing yourself to be happy.

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