by Marianne Beirne ***
Call me the Grinch, but I need to talk to you about holidays and depression. Thanksgiving and the subsequent holidays usually call up images – either in the media or our own memories – of smiling faces, laughter and festive meals with loved ones. We look forward to them with light hearts and joyous expectations.
Or do we? For people like my friend Becky, the coming of the holidays is something to dread, not anticipate. Becky just lost her mother to cancer and isn’t sure how to approach the upcoming celebrations for her family. Then there’s my friend Paul. He’s single and without family. He’s dreading all the questions about party plans and feels anxious and sad about facing the holidays alone.
Becky and Paul are not alone in their depressed feelings during this time of expected cheer. Holiday blues affects thousands of people and takes many forms – loneliness, anxiety, sadness or irritability. Sometimes mood problems are paired with insomnia, headaches or intestinal issues. What can you do to cope through this anything-but-cheerful time? Here are eight tips from the Social Services team at Virginia Mason that can help.
Be mindful. Feeling sad or stressed? That’s OK. Acknowledge what you are feeling. You don’t need to compare your happiness (or lack thereof) with others.
Respect your limits. Nor do you need to do all the “usual” holiday preparations. Pay attention to your energy level so that you don’t do too much. Just as it’s OK to cry when you need to, it’s OK to say “no” to plans and unnecessary tasks when you’ve reached your emotional limit.
Recharge. Even without feeling down, the bustle of holiday season can wear you out. Taking care of yourself physically helps counteract holiday emotional wear-and-tear. Walk or do some other form of exercise to shake of stress. Take a bath, get a massage, read quietly or to meditate to center and calm yourself. Most of all, try to get lots of sleep.
Avoid food crutches. Holiday festivities provide lots of temptation for emotional eating and drinking. Enjoy holiday delicacies, but try not to overindulge. Overdoing the calories can not only make you gain weight, it can lead to feelings of guilt and self-recrimination.
Connect with others. Grief or loneliness can contribute to feelings of social isolation. To counteract that, accept at least one party invitation, volunteer opportunity or community event. Being among friends or helping others can provide comfort and unexpected support. That said, if you are struggling with participating in social events, allow yourself an “out” for when you need to leave.
Share the burden. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with planning, shopping and cooking, ask for help. Tap into your support system instead of stressing yourself out trying to do it all. You’ll find that people want to help – they just need you to say what they can do.
Out with the old, in with the new. For those who are grieving or going through an emotional trauma like divorce, family traditions can add stress and contribute to the sense of loss. So make new traditions. Get connected to agencies who arrange gift giving for needy families, or volunteer to provide a shelter meal or items for a food bank. Involve children in making homemade gifts. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart – even the simplest craft or food gift will do. Becky’s children and I recently shared a nice afternoon making “snow globes” out of mason jars, little toys, water and some glitter.
Celebrate loved ones. Instead of ignoring your sadness, do something positive to acknowledge your loved one’s passing. Honor them by donating to a charity in his/her name. At holiday meals ask everyone to tell a funny story or share a memory of the person. It’s not false cheer to remember a happy time in the past. Be open to reflecting on what your loved one meant to you, despite their absence during the holidays.
What if you’ve done all that and you’re still depressed? The Social Services team wants you to know that when your feelings of sadness or anxiety become persist or overwhelming – particularly after the holidays – you should consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Call them at (206) 583-6578. If you have suicidal thoughts or fear someone you know may be contemplating suicide, get immediate help. The Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 866-4-CRISIS or 866-427-4747.
I wish everyone a holiday season that is merry and bright. But for those suffering holiday blues, consider the different ways to give yourself a gift. From thoughtful self-care to the gratification that comes from helping lift others, your path through the season may turn brighter after all.
Marianne is Web Producer for Virginia Mason. And although green is her favorite color, her heart really isn’t two sizes too small. Happy holidays everyone!