Saturday, December 11, 2010

Holiday Depression: Why It Happens and What to Do About It

It's as predictable as Black Friday: as soon as holiday decorations appear in the mall and carols are piped over the sound system at the gym, Bob's mood plummets for reasons he can't really explain except to say that he finds the holidays depressing.

Some people, like Sally. have specific reasons for holiday melancholia: this will be the first Christmas without her beloved mother who passed away this past summer.  And Maureen finds the holidays depressing "because they never measure up to my expectations and fantasies. I imagine these warm and wonderful family times together and then either people don't show up or do show up and act tortured for having to spend some time together or actually fight and ruin everything. Why do I keep forgetting all this reality and keep expecting things to be different this year? But every year, I do...and I'm always disappointed."

If any of this sounds familiar to you, what can you do?

Try positive self-talk.  If you keep telling yourself "I hate the holidays" or "I'm always disappointed with family celebrations." try altering this pattern with a new perspective.  Instead, try telling yourself: "This year I'm keeping myself open to a pleasant surprise" or "I enjoy the decorations and music" or "However my family reacts to the holidays, I will enjoy myself."  Telling yourself that this holiday season is special and that your enjoyment is not dependent on anyone else's frees you to get into the spirit of the season whatever dark vibes may be swirling around you.

Take time to grieve,  find joy in remembering past holidays and create new traditions.  Especially if this holiday season is your first without a loved one, it's normal to feel grief and longing and to remember the good times you once shared with this person.  Letting yourself feel the grief is part of the process of letting go to what was and letting yourself be warmed by loving memories is an important part of recapturing the joy of the season.  Creating new traditions for yourself can help a great deal. My friend Chuck had two horrific losses during the holidays some years back: in 1987, his only sibling, his brother Fred, was killed in a helicopter accident only a few days before Christmas. Three years later, his mother suffered a fatal heart attack as they drove to Mass on Christmas Eve.  He can't help but remember this pain as the holidays approach. But he has reclaimed joy by making Christmas a celebration with friends some years and traveling to warm, tropical destinations other years -- and in each location, either home or the tropics -- he finds joy both in memories and in shared experiences with his life partner David and special friends. And my friend Carol, whose mother died of a heart attack during Christmas Eve services two years ago, is looking forward to holidays in a whole new setting: at her brother's new home in the red rock canyons of Sedona, AZ where she'll celebrate the holidays with her new grandson.

Revise your expectations about family festivities.   Think realistically about last year. Is there any chance that anyone in last year's family fiasco will change?  Given the personalities involved, is there anything that can be done to decrease friction? Meet in a neutral place -- like another relative's or a restaurant? Divide your holiday into a "must-do" family get-together and an anticipated celebration with people -- perhaps some family, perhaps dear friends -- who make your spirits soar? Whatever the outcome of either, tell yourself that you're responsible for your own happy holiday, as are all the people attending your festivities. 

You can make a choice when holidays come around: to follow the usual pattern of misery and strife or to have a different kind of holiday this year -- one where you choose to be happy and to find joy in your own way no matter what is roiling around you. So what if family members don't show up or are determined to have as rotten a holiday as usual with each other? So what if circumstances dictate more modest celebrations than in years past? You can find joy in the music, in the lights, in a spirit in the air as you walk down the street. You can find joy in seeking the company of people who love the holidays.
You can find joy in celebrating who you are now and remembering the best holidays of your past, not with sadness, but with gratitude for the richness of your life experience. You can find joy in this season.  It's your choice!

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article - as Christmas is approaching again, can you write some more about this please? I get the blues around Christmas too, as I feel anxious about family get togethers. Also, we had to decline paying for the airfare for our adult daughter to come home for Christmas this year as we couldn't afford it this time and now I feel horribly guilty about saying "no". I also read your article about having the courage to say no to the demands of adult children. It was tough to say no - I think this is the first time I have done that.