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Emotions are contagious. Don't let people's negativity make holiday stress, anxiety or depression worse

Many people struggle with stress and depression around the holidays. If you're one of them, you know how an interaction with an Ebenezer Scrooge-type can make feelings of negativity and sadness grow.

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The holiday blues can make the season difficult to endure. But you may be able to make your holiday a little brighter with tips from Mayo Clinic experts.
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ROCHESTER — Let's face it. Our lives are not Hallmark movies. (Darn it!) I admit that I absolutely love watching those feel-good holiday shows and can't get enough of them. But if we were to measure our lives against those of the characters we see on the screen, most of us would come up short. And that can be depressing.

Feeling as if everyone's lives are better than yours is just one way the holidays can get people down. Somebody's decorations or buffet spread will always look better than yours. Plus, the business and expectations of the season can be stressful, financially straining and all of the memories associated with festivities, songs, food and decorations may trigger intense feelings of grief.

"Not only is it important to be mindful, respectful and patient with our friends and family who may be experiencing pain and grief this holiday season, but we should do so for ourselves," says Dr. Lisa Hardesty, a Mayo Clinic Health System licensed clinical health psychologist. "It's important this year to reflect on what we've endured, what we've learned and what we're grateful for, and we should share those thoughts and feelings with our loved ones."

That quote, from a Mayo Clinic News Network article on grief and the holidays, stuck with me. So did one of Hardesty's recommendations for what to do if grief makes attending holiday gatherings or participating in any type of holiday activity or task too difficult to bear. She says it's okay to have a Plan B.

"It's perfectly acceptable for someone to plan to attend a holiday party, for example, and then decide a gathering would be too overwhelming, whether that be due to fear of the virus, grief over a lost loved one, or any other mental health reason. A 'Plan B' example could be for the two of you to have a one-on-one brunch the next morning instead."

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Plan B's can be particularly helpful if you know that a person who is always negative or who tends to bring out the negativity and sadness in you will be attending the event. Being around negative people can worsen your anxiety and their gloomy attitudes can rub off on you. The psychology world calls this phenomenon "Emotional Contagion Theory." It means that if you're around a Grinch, you're likely to start thinking, feeling and acting like one too. And it seems, from that perspective, as if misery really does like company.

Dr. Elaine Hatfield described emotional contagion in an article published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science back in 1993. A quick online search results in a bunch of more recent research on the subject, as the topic continues to be relevant today — think social media, persuasive advertising and even political campaigns. So if being exposed to negativity has the potential to make your emotional situation worse, do yourself a huge favor and stay away from it.

Feelings of sadness, stress, anxiety and depression are nothing to mess with. If you're struggling with any of these mental health issues and notice that they're getting worse during the holiday season, the below tips from Mayo Clinic on how to handle holiday stress may help.

  • Don't take on more than you can handle. If you need help getting the decorations up, presents wrapped and cookies baked, as for it.
  • It's okay to say "no."
  • Take a break. Allow yourself time to rest and unwind. Take a walk, a nap or do an activity that helps you relax.
  • Practice gratitude and mindfulness.
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Get moving. Maintain your regular exercise routine.

If negative thoughts are overwhelming and you feel hopeless, helpless or as if you might break or hurt yourself, get emergency help.
Dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Line .

Many people struggle with mental health issues during the holidays. You are not alone and people who care and understand are ready to help.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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