Out of Holiday Cheer?

200-womanBy Kerstin Brown –

The holiday hype that starts at the end of Halloween and goes through the New Year is loaded with high hopes and heavy anticipation. We have high expectations that family gatherings have to go smoothly, the holiday decorations have to look perfect or we have to be the perfect gift-giver.

If all of the holiday displays of red and green have left you feeling bluer than blue, take heart, because you are not alone. While images of love and joy fill storefronts, television screens and magazine pages, for many people, the reality of the holidays isn’t so cheerful. Between stressful deadlines, family dysfunction and loss, poor eating and drinking habits and increasingly cold, dark winter days, it’s easy for the holiday season to feel not-so-merry and bright.

So, what are some of the reasons we get down around the holidays, and how can we take a proactive approach to beat the blues? Psychiatrist Dr. Kimberly Cress, medical director at the TMS Serenity Center, provides some tips on how to counter some of the seasonal hurdles that may be dragging you down.

1. Don’t Burn the Yule Log at Both Ends

At the holidays, the pressure of trying to do everything – plan the perfect holiday, make it home to see your family, say yes to every event and meet those year-end deadlines – can be enough to send anyone into a tail spin. And if you’re prone to anxiety and depression, stress – and a lack of sleep – can take a significant toll on your mood. A heightened pressure and fear of not getting everything done are some of the most common triggers for the holiday blues according to Dr. Cress.

Examine your expectations. Do you have to attend every party you’re invited to, or is this feeling of obligation self-imposed? Set lower standards that are based on your needs, not those of others. Feel comfortable saying no to stressful events and yes to what is truly important and enjoyable to you. Further, while old traditions provide good memories, it’s not always possible to continue them. So, give yourself a break and be open to creating new ones.

2. Lend Santa a Helping Hand

Do something nice for someone else. Sadness is inward-looking. Service is its opposite. Go make someone else’s life better by volunteering, and watch what happens to yours. Meaning and purpose will begin to reinsert itself into the holiday experience.

The service can be as big as joining a group dedicated to large service projects or as small as random acts of kindness in your neighborhood. Even wishing clerks and others waiting in long holiday lines a “Merry Christmas” can lift their moods, add smiles to tired faces and chase away your own holiday blues.

3. Put Yourself on the “Nice List”

For many, November and December are the busiest times of the year. When work pressures pile up, the routines that normally keep us healthy and happy are usually the first thing to fall by the wayside.

Remember that during stressful times, it’s important to be nice to yourself and your body. In addition to increased stress, eating poorly and drinking excessively can also exacerbate issues like stress, anxiety and depression. “Take care of yourself. Don’t overeat and overdrink,” said Dr. Cress. “Do your regular routines of exercise and whatever other healthy practices keep you together during the year.”

4. Avoid Scrooges and Grinches

Learn how to protect yourself from people who deplete your holiday energy reserve. Instead, try and be around positive people.

If your sister can suddenly start blaming and criticizing you and make you feel like a wreck, don’t surround yourself with her negativity. If you know being around Uncle Jake at Christmas dinner will freak you out, assure that whoever does the seating arrangement moves you to another location.

Dr. Cress emphasizes speaking up about your feelings. “Don’t be wishy-washy about decisions. People can’t read your mind. If something upsets you, they won’t know it unless you say so.”

5. Remember It Really Is “A Wonderful Life”

Hoping for a picture-perfect White Christmas holiday is setting yourself up for disappointment. “People have this anticipation or fantasy of the holiday that you would see on television,” Dr. Cress stated. “It’s never exactly as people anticipate, and it’s often disappointing. There’s often strife within families that comes out at holiday times.”

  Being mindful of what you do have to be thankful for – your family member who always makes holiday gatherings bearable, getting time off of work or just the promise of a fresh start with the beginning of the new year – can help combat feelings of deficiency. “Realize that the holidays do end, and take stock of what you can be grateful for,” said Dr. Cress. “Having gratitude is one of the best antidotes against depression.”

In the winter season, symptoms of stress and depression may increase, with many suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Six percent of the United States population is affected by SAD in its most marked form. Another 14 percent of the adult U.S. population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues.”  If you tend to start feeling down when winter approaches each year, and those negative feelings don’t go away after the holidays are over, you may have SAD.

200-ballsIs It More Than Just the Blues?

Clinical depression is more than just feeling sad for a few weeks around the holidays and is more severe than SAD. The symptoms generally include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, loss of interest in daily activities, poor energy, no motivation, difficulty concentrating, a general feeling of hopelessness and for some, thoughts of suicide.

Clinical depression causes dysfunction in day-to-day life, impairs relationships, careers and education. These feelings shouldn’t be dismissed as mere “winter blues.” Clinical depression requires professional treatment. If you are concerned that you, a family member or friend may be suffering from more than just the blues, talk to a mental health professional to find the best treatment options available.