Melancholy holidays and a bittersweet New Year

The holiday season is here, with all the joys and stresses we typically associate with it.

This year, however, the ordinary, perennial holiday season depression will compound with a unique atmosphere of stress permeating the United States. In the American Psychological Association’s August 2017 “Stress in America” survey, 59 percent of respondents reported feeling that the current state of the nation is “the lowest point in our nation’s history,” with 63 percent citing the future of the nation as a significant source of stress, usurping money as the most common previous concern.

The belief that America is at its lowest point in memorable history was shared across all generations surveyed, from millennials to those old enough to have lived through Pearl Harbor and World War II.

Many respondents also reported that increased stress was affecting their health, with sleeplessness and feelings of anger and fatigue rising from levels reported in 2016. Fourteen percent reported using smoking as a stress-management tool. As the youngest generation surveyed, with their future at stake, millennials are experiencing the highest levels of stress.

With atmospheric stress on the rise, it’s important to remember that the holiday season can be a double-edged sword. It often serves as an additional source of stress and usually offers an increase in cases of depression. To those experiencing stress, depression, or grief, the sanguine atmosphere of the holiday season sometimes sets up unreasonable expectations of joy and happiness. Especially for those who use Facebook as an accurate gauge of others’ happiness levels.

It is, after all, uncommon to even see the holidays mentioned without words like “happy,” “merry” and “joyous” affixed. Even those who are not predisposed to depression might experience normal stresses of hosting or attending parties and their own personal expectations.

And let’s not even get started on the saccharine music that will plague every venue, so much so that even the most spirited revelers beg for mercy to make it stop. Holiday stress and depression are such common problems that health organizations such as the Mayo Clinic publish health guides on how to manage them.

But the holidays can also be leveraged as an opportunity for relief. For many, especially those in school, the holidays provide valuable time to manage stress levels. People who have the opportunity and fortune to see their friends and family should reach out to them. Instead of a card, talk to the people who are there for you and talk about something that matters. Instead of worrying about buying a perfect gift, consider spending some more time doing something together you all enjoy.

Not everybody will have a happy holiday — sometimes the theater of life hands us a more melancholy script. Many people may experience increased friction with the family they are expected to spend the holidays with: 27 percent of adults indicated that they either strongly or somewhat agree that the current political climate has caused strain between themselves and family members.

Others will experience familial strife for many reasons. Some may have lost family members and friends they would have otherwise gone to for comfort. Still others will feel that they cannot connect to family and friends for reasons even they may not understand. That’s okay.

The cheerful overtone of the holidays can obscure a basic truth from those who need to acknowledge it most: negative emotions, depression, stress and grief are all facts of life.

Just as light and shadow simultaneously define each other’s existence, so too do happiness and sadness each define the boundaries of the other. Happiness, by definition, cannot exist as a constant or be summoned upon demand, because without the presence of sadness, happiness has no definition.

Every person who wonders why they cannot simply feel happy in a season of such overt cheer should remember this. It is important to acknowledge and address your feelings.

So, this holiday season, be kind and understanding to yourself. Whether you feel overcrowded, alone, or somewhere in-between, take some to think about what you need and want.

For the realists among us, we wish you a melancholy holiday and a bittersweet new year.