Most people believe the holidays are supposed to be a time of joyous celebration where family members who haven’t seen each other recently get together to praise and acknowledge each others’ accomplishments over the past year. Many people would respond with, “Yeah right.”
For many people the holidays bring out their worst concerns. They may reflect on their “failures” of the past or worry about loneliness. They may have financial worries that place a shadow over any excitement or anticipation those around them may have.
For those who find the holidays less than “storybook perfect”, there may be a risk of the “Holiday Blues”. This type of stress and depression can be caused from holding unrealistic expectations, wanting everything to be perfect or isolating altogether. A sense of cynicism can come from a focus on the over- commercialization or an inability to spend the holidays with loved ones.
The symptoms of the “Holiday Blues” are much like those of other types of stress and depression. Symptoms may include poor concentration, disturbances in eating (too much or very infrequently), drinking too much, difficulty sleeping or wanting to spend all day in bed, irritability, low frustration tolerance, and agitation. Physical signs of stress may also be present such as, stomachaches, headaches, back problems, digestive problems, jaw tightness and physical fatigue.
Even though many people with the “Holiday Blues” experience these feelings during the holiday season, some sufferers can be greatly affected by a post- holiday let down after January 1. These later reactions can be due to fatigue, emotional disappointments of the preceding months and residual financial stress.
There are many practical things anyone with a predisposition to the “Holiday Blues” can do to minimize its effects. Remember that the action one takes to prevent feeling stressed and depressed takes less effort than to try later to pull oneself out of feeling down and miserable.
- Give yourself the right to enjoy the holidays as you wish. Try to let go of high expectations and wanting everything to be perfect. Allow yourself to participate in the aspects of the holiday, which have meaning for you and try to let go of anyone’s “shoulds”. Allow yourself to be a little “crazy”. Have some fun and let go of how everything “must” look, including yourself.
- Organize your time. Take 10-15 minutes each morning to plan out what your day will look like. Don’t leave things until the last minute. Make lists and plan out how you wish to spend your time. Don’t spend all your time planning for just one event (an office party or Christmas dinner, etc.).
- Try something different, especially if this is the first holiday after a significant loss (death of a loved one, loss of home or job, children growing up, or a divorce). Spend the holiday in a different location or celebrating with different people than usual.
- Find the specialness and uniqueness in THIS holiday season. Don’t compare it with the past. Life moves forward not backwards. Each holiday season is different and these are the “good old days” you will look back on in a few years.
- Spend time with people who accept and love you unconditionally. These may not be biological family. Often our chosen family members are able to accept us more unconditionally. Surround yourself with encouragement and support.
- Take care of yourself physically. Don’t drink too much (alcohol is a depressant). Exercise, it will help with all the holiday goodies you want to enjoy. Get outdoors. As the days shorten and less daylight hours are available many people become depressed from insufficient light. Go for walks, eat your lunch outside. Drink lots of water.
- Do something for someone else. There is no faster way to get out of a “funk” than to help someone else feel better. Make a gift for someone. Give a gift anonymously. Help out at a soup kitchen, church or temple charity project, local hospital or retirement home, or homeless shelter. Focus on people rather than things. Give “love coupons” good for making a favorite meal, or a walk in the woods, or a visit to a museum or art festival.
- Spend time doing low cost or free things. Too often the holidays are focused on consumerism. There are many holiday displays that are free to visit and participate in. Children love to drive around at night and look at lights or visit large hotel lobbies decorated for the holidays.
- Remember the significance of this time of year that is important to you. Find a way to celebrate that aspect of the holiday, whether with a group or alone with a personalized ceremony. This is a special time of year and beneath the fear and cynicism, almost everyone has some warm attachment to some aspect of the winter season.
- Give yourself the gift of letting go of past resentments. It has been said, “resentment is a poison we take hoping that it will harm another.” Forgive, if only for the holidays or only a part of the remembered betrayal. Release someone from indebtedness for past mistakes. Do this not for them but for your own peace and serenity this holiday season.
If you or someone you care about is having a particularly difficult time with holiday stress or depression, there is help and support available. The Nightingale Center has an extensive list of group referrals and resources. If you would like more information or a free packet sent to you, please call 714-993-5343.
© 1997 by Dr. Lois Nightingale, director of the Nightingale Center in Yorba Linda, Calif.