When the Chinese New Year arrives in a few days' time, many people will be hosting or visiting families and friends to wish them good tidings.
It is a happy time for many people. Family gatherings can generate feelings of warmth and happiness and are a source of memories for the family, said Ms Leow Lilyn, a principal clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health.
"It's a family tradition, something that everyone in the family can look forward to every year."
It is especially important to keep up such traditions if you have children.
She said: "Memories of strong family bonds have been found to create resilience in kids."
Children in a loving family feel more secure and can better manage stress. And even weak family ties are better than none at all.
Dr Chua Siew Eng, a specialist in psychiatry and consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre, said: "Weak ties are still ties. So long as one derives pleasure or meaning from such interaction, no matter how infrequent it is, it can still contribute to happiness. And perhaps, one day, the ties might even be strengthened."
By creating the opportunity for sharing, stimulation and activity, social interaction can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, which is beneficial for mental and physical health, she said.
LONELINESS AND MONEY WOES
The opposite is true for someone without social support.
Loneliness or social isolation has been shown to increase the risk of illnesses, such as depression and dementia, said Dr Chua.
If you have lost someone or are estranged from family, or have loved ones who are far away, the festive season might seem more stressful than an average day.
It heightens or exposes the sense of loneliness and reminds people of what they do not have, said Dr Tan Hwee Sim, who is also a specialist in psychiatry and consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre.
"People who feel they don't fit in with the festive joy may become depressed."
People with mental conditions such as depression and psychosis may also be affected, she said.
At the Singapore Association for Mental Health, some clients do become more noticeably stressed during festive periods, said its executive director, Ms Tan Li Li.
Even the thought of spring- cleaning or meeting relatives who they see only once a year and fielding uncomfortable questions can lead to holiday blues, she said.
Indeed, at every Chinese New Year, there are a few patients with depression who ask to be admitted to hospital, said Dr Victor Kwok, head of the psychiatry department at Sengkang Health.
One patient with depression had a relapse over the Chinese New Year period because she was reminded of her late mother.
Another vulnerable group of people are those in financial difficulties.
Studies have shown that money worries are associated with a higher rate of almost all types of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorder, as well as harmful drinking and alcohol dependence, Dr Kwok said.
Money worries are also associated with poor health and excess body weight, which could be due to less exercise, poor food choices or overeating.
Money woes are compounded during Chinese New Year because of what one thinks that relatives may expect in the hongbao, he said.
Such people might also start comparing the size of the house they visit and model of the car, as well as the clothes that others wear or the restaurant where the reunion dinner is held.
"Furthermore, such topics tend to be discussed in the presence of friends and relatives, and the potential loss of face can give rise to anxiety," said Dr Kwok.
Symptoms of depression include tiredness, poor appetite, lack of concentration, insomnia and a feeling of worthlessness that can last for at least two weeks and might affect the person's work.
Those who fit the description should seek help, said doctors.
Although spontaneous recovery is possible for mild depression, the average duration of depression can be around eight months, if left untreated, said Dr Tan.
"Those whose depressive illness is untreated do not always recover eventually. In some cases, the symptoms may get considerably worse, with the risk of suicide," she said.
Untreated depression increases the risk of behaviours such as gambling, alcohol or drug addiction, causing problems at school or at work, and ruining relationships - all stressors that perpetuate the illness, she added.
But it does not mean that people without close family members cannot enjoy the festive season. The key is to have close reciprocal relationships.
"Family relationships are not the only ties we have. There's the family you are born with and the family you create. The key is to have authentic ties," said Ms Leow.
"You can be involved in another community and create rituals of your own," she added.
"It is not about the number of friends and family you have but about the quality of the relationships you have with them.
"If you have authentic relationships, they do keep you happier."
Ways to beat the blues
For some people, the Chinese New Year period can be unpleasant and stressful.
Keeping up appearances at gatherings can create anxiety, said Ms Leow Lilyn, a principal clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health.
She said: "Some people ruminate about their life and wonder why it is not perfect. That can be a reason that they are feeling low."
Regardless of the cause of your unhappiness, there are ways to overcome it and feel better, Ms Leow said.
She gives tips on how to make it through the festivities.
BE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU HAVE
Gratitude has been found to be helpful for mental health.
This applies to everyone and it also works for those who are in pain.
Finding a positive thing to be grateful for can be very powerful.
For instance, if you have to attend a reunion dinner with people you do not like, you can be thankful that someone else has taken care to make the meal or that you do not have to be alone at home.
If you have an aunt who keeps asking when you are getting married, you could try being thankful that she is healthy enough to be a busybody, or appreciate the goodies she is serving.
You cannot change her behaviour but you can change your reaction.
Gratitude is something that you need to work on. You may not find something to be thankful for immediately, but just seeking it out will lift your mood.
You do not have to be thankful for major things either. It could be something small but positive, like finding a convenient carpark space.
KEEP THE BIG PICTURE IN MIND
If you do not enjoy attending family reunions or visiting relatives, bear in mind that it is only for a few hours or, at most, a few days.
Seeing the big picture can also help you to be selective about what you do. You do not have to visit the homes of every single relative, for instance.
After attending a reunion or meeting people that you do not wish to see, do something for yourself.
Go to the cineplex and watch a movie, have a workout at the gym or treat yourself to a massage.
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
You do not have to buy into the idea of perfection that pervades social media, which often offers an idealised picture of what festive holidays are like.
Tell yourself that it is not a bar you have to reach. The food does not have to look amazing and your home does not have to be picture- perfect. You can then focus on the family and on what is truly important.
This article was first published on Jan 24, 2017.
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