Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beating the Holiday Blues

The melancholy may overwhelm you when you hear a certain Christmas song over the sound system at the gym, an elevator or a crowded store.

Your mood may change from joy to the doldrums of resentment and depression when you struggle to cover your growing holiday gift list on a shrinking budget.

Or sadness may make you want to close your eyes and ears to the holiday cheer as you cope with the loss of a loved one -- a first holiday without him or her.

The memories, the flashbacks, the turns your life has taken can all exacerbate feelings of loss, the yearning for warm connections and the loneliness of being emotionally stranded during a season devoted to the realities and fantasies of family togetherness.

It may seem that the best you can do is to simply endure the holiday season. But there are alternatives to grim endurance.

If music is flashback to the past -- and brings on the blues: Instead of dwelling on the sadness of holidays that will never be the same, let yourself return to that moment and feel the joy and excitement.

Religious Christmas music reminds me of the holidays of childhood and adolescence when I sang in our parish choir, so enjoying the religious traditions and rituals that have ceased, over time, to be part of my life. I feel the peace that was part of the faith that once came so easily, that was such a comfort in my bittersweet youth.  And when I hear Gene Autry singing "Here Comes Santa Claus", I'm suddenly five years old again, excited about Santa and the promise of a surprise under the Christmas tree.

If a certain Christmas song brings back memories of a lost love, let yourself experience the joy of that love. Focus on the love you've experienced in your life, skipping for at least a moment any sad comparisons between then and now.

Each phase of life, each holiday season of our lives, can be joyous in different ways. Let yourself feel the gratitude for the blessings of Christmases past. And then look to the present. Sharing Christmas with an excited child or adding to a child's hope and happiness this year can help you to experience the holidays in a new and wonderful way. Reconnecting with your faith or with special people can bring peace and joy to this season. Celebrating with new friends can bring special pleasure to these days as wel.

If your family isn't co-operating with your holiday scenario. Maybe you want a big family celebration but your siblings are opting for smaller scale holidays with their own nuclear families or with in-laws. Or maybe you want the peace of your own holiday plans -- a getaway for two or simply cocooning with your significant other in the comfort of your own home, eating take-out and celebrating quietly -- and the rest of your extended family wants a blow-out traditional family Christmas and is guilting you into a full-fledged depression. What to do? Look for a timely compromise. Participate in a celebration with all or part of your family before or after your travel (or cocooning) plans or around their official holiday plans. The point is reaffirming love and enjoying time together -- whether you do this on December 24 or 25 or after.

I'll have to admit, I had a fantasy of hosting my brother and his family (and maybe my sister, too, though she prefers to work major holidays for the extra pay) here in Arizona for Christmas. So when my brother announced that he, Amp and Maggie were going to spend the holidays in Thailand with Amp's family instead, I felt a wave of disappointment. Even though I know my brother isn't into holidays the way I am, even though I know that Amp -- who is in her difficult first trimester of her second pregnancy -- was longing for time with her mother, even though I know that Maggie blossoms with happiness the minute she sets foot in Thailand, I pouted for few hours. Then I decided to reframe this new development as an opportunity. We will have a quiet Christmas with friends. I will revel in a lesser level of responsibility for the holiday meal: I'm bringing the dressing while my neighbor Louise cooks the turkey and another neighbor Padma brings her special gingered vegetables. Bob and I will come home to peace and an uncluttered house. And I'm happily anticipating a visit with my brother and his family in early February. Hearing the excitement in his voice about our February visit helped raise my spirits, too. We're spreading the holiday cheer of togetherness into an otherwise dull winter month.

Anytime there is love and family -- there is a special holiday whatever the date on the calendar!

If depression is a holiday habit. Change your behavior and your feelings may change as well. If you've spent years hating the holidays, saying "No" to every invitation and spending the time in dark brooding, now is the time to change. Start saying "Yes" to some invitations to celebrate with friends. If no one invites you anymore because you've always declined, throw a holiday open house. That may be less daunting than a sit-down meal. Schedule it for a before or just after the major holidays. Order sandwiches on trays, salads, shrimp cocktail and small desserts from your local deli and invite friends over for a couple of hours. Once they recover from their shock, they'll be happy to help you celebrate the season anew.

If you hate holiday music, find pleasure in music you do like. See people you enjoy. Spend time reflecting, meditating and giving thanks fot all the blessings of your life. Focus on what's going right for you instead of dwelling on what's going wrong. As the world around you pauses to enjoy the holidays, give yourself a break from the concerns and anxieties you feel and let yourself enjoy today. Just today. And then take it day by day, rejoicing in the blessings of your life each day, throughout the holiday season.

Obviously, you can't go from a Scrooge to a holiday Pollyanna in a day. But you can begin to make changes that bring you pleasure, lightening your mood and brightening your holiday season little by little.

If you are marking your first Christmas without a loved one -- that empty chair, that void left in your heart -- can be overwhelming. Let yourself feel the sadness and loss. Take time for yourself -- to cry, to grieve anew, to think with longing about past holidays enjoyed with this loved one. Then plan ways to reinvent the holiday rituals -- with some familiar traditions for comfort and new rituals as well.

The holidays will always accentuate that loss. You'll never not miss that special person during these times. But shared grief and celebration of this person can help make this first holiday season bearable.

One of the best Thanksgiving celebrations I've ever had was in the immediate wake of a terrible family loss: my cousin Jack lost his 35-year-old wife Tanzy to breast cancer just before Thanksgiving 1982. Her family and Jack's parents -- my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer -- were in town for the funeral. I invited them for Thanksgiving -- and, after a little hesitation, they decided to come. It was one of the sweetest, most loving holidays in my memory. We talked and cried about Tanzy, remembering her with humor, warmth and love. We cherished each other's company. I loved meeting Tanzy's mother and sister and kept in touch with her mom for the rest of her life. The pleasure of spending a holiday with my beloved Aunt Evelyn and watching her make some of her holiday favorites added very special joy to our quiet celebration. I enjoyed Uncle Elmer's unique humor and treasured the time with Jack. We missed Tanzy very much -- but we missed her together, with loving shared memories and the comfort of carrying on with the holiday as a family.

While your pain may not be quite as raw in subsequent years, you will always feel that pang of loss. It's important to acknowledge it, be with your feelings for a time and then look for ways to keep the joy in your holiday season.

We've spent 8 Christmas seasons now without Aunt Molly. It's hard to imagine. From my earliest childhood, she absolutely made our holidays merry. From hunting for the perfect Christmas tree, to giving us presents that we still cherish years later, from leading Christmas carols to savoring the holiday feast, she was the most joyous one of us. Since she passed away a few days into the New Year of 2004, Christmas has never been the same. But we have our memories, our stories, our rituals and some new traditions as well. We consider keeping the holidays joyous as a way to honor this wonderful woman who brought immeasurable joy to our lives, whatever the season.

If you're feeling resentful of commercialism and the expense of so many presents. Scale down. Draw names. Or agree with loved ones that there will be few or no presents -- just the joy you feel in being together, in special times shared. Bob and I haven't given each other Christmas gifts for more than 30 years. We have everything we need and consider each day we have together as a special gift. At holiday time, we rejoice in contributing to our favorite charities and buy gift cards for a few needy families we know. But most of all, we enjoy the gift of another year, another holiday season, together.

If you find yourself alone -- after a move, a divorce, the death of a spouse, a romantic breakup, or a family dispute, you can still have a happy holiday. Make your own Merry Christmas: sign up with a local church or charity group to serve a holiday meal for the homeless. Take gifts and holiday treats to a person or family you know who are worse off than you. Pamper yourself in the best way you know: with a day devoted to exactly what you want to do, listening to your favorite music, getting caught up on reading, taking a hot bath or shower and spending the day in a soft robe or fresh pajamas. Attend a family celebration virtually: via Skype or iChat or Facetime.  Or gather a family of friends together for a special holiday feast. There are so many ways to be happy.

One of the most challenging holidays of my life was the one I spent in Chicago while in graduate school at Northwestern. I was living in a run-down, fourth floor walkup apartment with a bullet hole in the living room window and the only roommate I had ever had with whom I did not get along. I had just been dumped by the love of my life, was working my way through school and couldn't afford to go home for Christmas. After some time spent weeping whenever I heard the song "I'll Be Home for Christmas", I decided to take Aunt Molly's directive to "Get down off your cross and get your sense of humor back."

After my roommate left to spend the holidays with her family, I invited my dear friend Jeanne Nishida, who was a senior still living in the dorm, working her way through school and couldn't afford to go home to Hawaii for Christmas, to spend the holidays with me. We found the perfect tree at a lot in downtown Evanston and, since neither of us had a car, we carried and dragged our prize through the snow the mile-and-a-half home, laughing and planning our decoration theme. We transformed the dumpy apartment to a holiday wonderland, thanks to Jeanne's creativity with cut-out paper snowflakes and the sparkling lights of our festive tree. We baked cookies, talked story Hawaiian style and sang Christmas carols. We visited our friends Lorri and Bruce on Christmas Eve for much laughter and egg nog, then made a sumptuous Christmas day feast for us and our friends. My former roommate Ruth, who was in law school, and her friend Richard drove from Cleveland to spend the New Year's holiday with us.  We sat on the living room floor -- Ruth, Richard, Jeanne and I -- eating take-out Chinese food, talking, laughing and watching the celebration in Times Square on television. And 44 years later, I still smile when I remember holiday season 1967 and the dear friends who shared it with me.

A major way to beat holiday blues is to stop expecting perfection and celebrate what is.

 I was reading a newspaper story recently about family holiday minefields. One family has converted an annual argument between husband and wife over the consistency of the gravy for the turkey into a recreational event: the whole family gathers in the kitchen to witness and enjoy the annual "Gravy Fight" and now, laughing, the parents oblige them in a token battle.

Some of the holiday memories that make me smile are ones where something wasn't perfect -- like Christmas 1981 when Bob and I had just bought our first house and agreed to host three -- count them, three! - holiday meals at our house. On the 23rd, we hosted Aunt Molly and my brother Mike, who -- as a medical intern -- had to work on Christmas. On the 24th, we hosted Bob's family -- his parents, grandmother, brother and sister-in-law. On Christmas Day, we hosted my sister Tai and her then husband Larry and my cousins Jack and George and their families. By that third day, I was totally frazzled. And I forgot to put a cookie sheet under the turkey baking pan. Midway through roasting, the pan split, sending turkey drippings all over the oven. As a thick cloud of smoke roiled out of the oven, I went into a frenzy -- insisting everyone go out on the patio with a tray of cookies while I cleaned the oven and Bob rushed to turn off all the screeching smoke alarms in the house. We ended up having a lovely dinner, some time later, and many laughs about my self-imposed holiday ordeal and my wild-eyed admonition to my guests to "Take these cookies and go! Go out to the patio -- now!"

The holidays, after all, aren't about expensive presents or exotic trips or non-stop revelry. They're about us -- with our imperfections, quirks and good will. They're about those we love. They're about happy memories, counting our blessings, allowing pleasure into our lives and cherishing sweet moments and warm connections with family and friends. 


  1. It's good to see you in blogland again! This is such a rich article, chock full of wise and warm advice. I don't get sad at Christmas, but I do find myself missing my grandparents and great grandparents who were such a huge part of my childhood Christmas celebrations. I had a dream the other night that put me smack in the middle of one of those grand Christmases of my youth and I so enjoyed being with them all in the dream. It was such a sweet thing that it stays with me still.

    I love how you make the best of what your situation is. Your Aunt Molly's advice is priceless...and hilarious!

  2. Great ideas, Kathy. Many people struggle during the holidays ---some for the loss of loved ones, some for ugly memories, etc....

    I have always had a good life overall--and seldom get 'blue' during the holidays.. I do admit to missing my parents and my 2 brothers now more than ever (since I am the only one left).

    However, I overcome those sad times --by finding the JOY all around me... I always told people to get their minds off of themselves by going out and helping others on Christmas. There are so many ways to help others.. Serving Christmas Dinner to those less fortunate can raise one's spirits tremendously...

    Thanks for your great ideas... I hope many people read this post.

    Merry Christmas to YOU.

  3. This is the first Christmas my oldest daughter won't be with me. She is going to her new in-laws instead. My youngest, however is still coming so, I am determined to make this holiday as good as it can be. For the first time also, none of us will be exchanging gifts. My daughter's idea and for that I am extremely grateful.
    We are also splitting the meals. I'm doing Christmas Eve. She is doing Christmas Day.

    I made a conscious decision NOT to be sad, gloomy, depressed or sad this year. Instead, I searched local papers to find out all the free holiday events and DH and I have gone to each and every one of them! Every weekend is something amazing and special! Also, I like to watch the Hallmark channel and all the holiday movies.

    I called my friends and invited myself over late Christmas Day, after my youngest daughter must leave to see her own in-laws. Surprisingly, my friends and my sister want to come to MY house instead. Everybody is bringing something, so there will be no financial stress. I'm actually looking forward to the holidays now.

    I put up minimal lights and a small tree. I won't be able to send Xmas cards this year, but I do have unlimited long distance free cell phone service, so I'll be making a lot of calls.

    For some reason, I feel less stressed and actually looking forward to the season.

  4. Thanks for writing this post. It covers all the stressful situations that a lot of families deal with at this time of the year. My family included.
    We all could benefit from having a Aunt Molly in our life.
    Your words relate to how much she is still loved and missed.
    I think of our troops and their families more at this time of the year and others a lot less fortunate than myself which helps me to realize how blessed I really am.
    With so many unemployed this year I know a lot of people are feeling the financial hardship even more so another way to lift ourselves up like you said is to help others.
    Your advice always lifts me.
    Merry Christmas dear friend

  5. We usually travel for part of the holiday season so it doesn't get too long. We fly home today from the Big Island of Hawaii and will have a family gathering on Sunday. Grandchildren arrive on the 26th for a week.

    The best years were when the kids were little. We've learned to make different plans so we don't wallow in the past.

  6. Wonderful advice per usual. It is sad that such a happy time of year can have the opposite effect on so many. I agree, if you get out and do some good for another, it can't help but make the whole image change.
    "A major way to beat holiday blues is to stop expecting perfection and celebrate what is."
    That says it all.
    Arkansas Patti

  7. Thank you for this post Dr Kathy. It is nice to get some perspective on how to better enjoy the coming holidays. I long for the holidays every year, only to start feeling anxious and then not fully enjoying the experience. Sometimes it is a relief to get back to work in the New Year and then I miss the time out! I am not sure what brought it all on for me, but it might possibly be that there were some painful family get-togethers in the past, and my mind has blocked out the goood memories, just leaving those bad ones. With your advice, I am this year going to accept that my family doesn't have to perfect, Christmas doesn't have to be perfect, and most of all, I don't have to be perfect. It's good to be alive, and there is a lot feel grateful for!

  8. Outstanding in every way! I've faced a number of these situations, generally with good results. But some are harder than others and the suggestions you offer are excellent.

    I know I'm having issues with a couple -- sharing kids with mom and future in-laws puts "Christmas" on the 23rd. Don't like it. Will cope, because we'll all be together and on the 25th we'll invite "strays!" I am forced for health reasons to cut back this year on all energy-expending activities and I don't like that, either. But it will be what it will be -- and if cards arrive by new Year's, well, isn't it nice not to be lost in the shuffle? Excellent tips!

  9. LOts of good stuff here. I found you on Tom Sightings blog. (Will come back and read this page more thoroughly.) So, what's wrong with Custer? Kidding of course. Dianne

  10. Thanks so much for your kind comments -- and a very Merry Christmas to you all!

    Shelly, you're right: Aunt Molly had a way with words! She didn't suffer fools or whiners. And I loved her for it when she found me insufferable and said so!

    Betsy, hugs to you, too!

    Maggie, thanks for your further suggestions! My thoughts are with you and Christi this holiday season. And I'll send that email within the next day or so. Thanks so much!

    Betty, may you and your family also have a wonderful holiday season!

    Linda, you're right that holidays change so much when the kids grow up. Good for you for making new (and really fun!) holiday traditions!

    Thanks so much for your kind words and warm support, Patti. I so appreciate all your comments on my posts and hope you have a very happy holiday season.

    Kitty, I understand the anxiety. Giving yourself permission NOT to be perfect is a definite Rx for holiday anxiety and depression. I hope it all works for you!

    Oh, Rosaria! I was thinking of you so much when I was writing this post. May the memories you share of Brian and the warmth of your love for each other make this holiday bearable and maybe even special in its own way. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    Jeanie, sharing loved ones can be so hard over the holidays, but whether it's the 23rd or the 25th, you still have time together and that's what matters most. And late Christmas cards are wonderful -- just about the time you think they've all arrived and the holiday is just about over, here comes a new card to prolong the joy! I've always appreciated those stragglers. I had one friend, now passed away, who sent her Christmas cards in March -- claiming to be either the latest sender of the previous year or the first of the present year! I hope your health improves and that you're able to enjoy the holidays in your own way!

    Dianne, welcome to my blog! I'm glad you like it and love the jibe about Custer. (From a comment I recently left on Tom's blog!) It's the hour long monologues about him that just kill me. And then I feel so bad, because I really like the person who does this. Please come back and check out more posts -- and I'll visit your blog, too!

  11. There is so much wonderful stuff in this post -- but that last paragraph is one I'm going to print out and put some place where I will see it often and so be grounded in the true meaning of Christmas. Thank you and it's so good to see your post!

  12. This is a real service: Free holiday counseling. And who doesn't need it?

    I've been playing with all the old caroles, trying to fit "cognitive reframe" into a few of them seamlessly.

    "Angels we have heard on high,
    Sweetly singing o'er the plains,
    And the mountains in reply,
    Echo their cognitive reframes."

    And so on. Merry Christmas Dr. K!

  13. Dear Kathy,
    I think you've covered it all. I shall cut and paste this wise advice and keep it for evermore.

    Living in a country other than my own (heavens, has it still not become my own?) Christmas is not what it should be, or so I say every year. Hearing Silent Night sung in German, by a baritone, with a choir and church bells ringing in the background makes me cry bitter homesick tears. Without those tears Christmas wouldn't be Christmas either.

    You are so right, if we get off our cross, we can make it good; whichever way we consider it to be good for us.

    May I therefore wish you a very happy Christmas.

  14. I like stopping by here. :-)

    I don't really have any issues with the holidays or my family. The Bush Years put a horrible divide between us that put a strain on conversation, but we've all mellowed since then.


  15. Dear Kathy,
    This is such insightful post. I love the advices, and your anecdotes. These holidays are hard on my nursing home residents. This time of the year, I normally notice increased anxiousness & depression; more residents get ill (flu, pneumonia, etc) and there are a few deaths.

    My most challenging Christmas experience happened 8 years ago. I was going through divorce, just got out of an abusive relationship. With my son who was only 14 at the time, had to spend two weeks in a motel, until I could find a suitable apartment. We moved into our new apartment on Christmas eve. Happiness embraced the two of us. We were so thankful for having a safe place, and a delightful meal I cooked that evening. God is good.


  16. This post is absolutely wonderful and very thoughtful! I am going to read it to a couple of depressed individuals. Maybe it will help them. I hope it will help.

  17. Hi There, Now that Christmas is almost here, I'm stopping back by to say MERRY CHRISTMAS to you and yours... God Bless You.

  18. Such good advice. Happy holidays to you and your family.

  19. Merry Christmas, Betsy, Olga, Doris, Pearl, Friko, Nance qnd Broad! May this holiday season be very special to all of you!