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Far too many people feel depressed and dark during the holidays when they believe they should be merry and bright. All the pressure comes together forming a perfect storm powerful enough to make even the calmest person stressed and to exacerbate the mental health symptoms of those already suffering.
Before Christianity, multiple cultures celebrated festivals at the winter solstice, and as the actual date of the birth was unknown, these festivals were co-opted by the Christian church and celebrated as Christmas instead. Although the focus changed for many people the celebration itself did not, and Christmas festivities were wild, raucous affairs focussed on eating drinking and having a good time. In fact, the New York Police Department initially formed in response to what was called the ‘Christmas Riot.’
When the Victorians decided the celebrations were getting too rowdy, and the ‘lower classes’ were getting out of hand, the party became redirected into a family festivity.
Washington Irving and Charles Dickens wrote books about Christmas, painting a picture of family togetherness alongside traditions that were either a distorted version of reality or made up entirely.
Next, add in a hefty dose of Robert L. May writing ‘Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and Dr. Clement Moore with ‘‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ You now have a host of pop culture influences shaping the celebration.
We’re molded to imagine everyone else enjoying a happy family celebration full of perfect gifts, tasty food, and warm fuzzy feelings inside, and therein lies the problem. For many reasons, the reality of Christmas is far from this, and we are destined to fail if we attempt to achieve this fictionalized ideal.
It’s not over, yet. This year, we do not have to repeat our journey down that same road to destination depression. There are things we can do to minimize the stressors that mount up over the season, and there are ways to keep ourselves as healthy as possible for when the stress, anxiety, and depression arrives.
By addressing the most potentially stressful elements of the holiday season, we can also reduce the potential for harm to our mental well being.
It is easier said than done but try not to imagine a storybook celebration where you are overwhelmed by the same magical feelings you may have experienced as a child. When you were seven years old, somebody else was there to worry about gift buying and food preparation and whether or not the relatives would start fighting over Monopoly. None of those things were on your radar, all you had to do was enjoy time off of school, imagine what Santa might bring, and enjoy eating holiday cookies. Or, perhaps, you have those happy memories, and you just want to feel that way again.
When we look back on those occasions, we view them through rose-tinted glasses. We were either unaware or have forgotten about the less than perfect parts of the holiday.
It’s important to remember that you are no longer the same person as you were in times past. You have different responsibilities, problems, and perspectives. That is not to say you cannot have an enjoyable time, but you do have to stop hankering after something in the past. The events of your memories, have passed and now exist only in your mind, but you are in the here and now. Learn to love what is happening now and do not try to measure it against imaginary benchmarks.
One of the most significant stressors of the holidays is the feeling of being pulled in several different directions, and then you become anxious and overwhelmed. Symptoms of depression may raise their heads if you begin to feel like a failure because you cannot do everything.
To try and prevent yourself becoming engulfed in the cycle of anxiety, guilt, and self-loathing, think about what is really important to you about the holidays.
Perhaps an extravagant feast is the center of your celebration, or maybe it is the look on your little ones’ face when they discover their stocking on Christmas morning. Make a list of what is truly important to you and concentrate on that. If you can scale back what you try to pack into your time, you can reduce your anxieties and enjoy the holidays more. Only keep what’s truly important. The rest can fall to the side.
This fact may come as a shock to some people, but you can’t ruin the entire celebration if you don’t carefully decorate your Christmas tree and coordinate it with decorations that reflect the color scheme of your ornately decorated dining table. You don’t have to adorn gifts with perfectly proportioned bows, and the world will not stop turning if you over bake the cookies.
By trying to achieve perfection you set yourself up for stress, anxiety, and depression when you fail to measure up to your unrealistic expectations. Not only that but you are so focused on what you are doing and making everything perfect that you are missing out on connecting with the people around you and enjoying your time with them.
Make a point of wrapping gifts in mismatched dollar store gift wrap and, if you burn the cookies, declare them a Christmas gift for the birds and enjoy crumbling in the garden. Turn deviations from your plan into opportunities for creating something different.
The first holiday season after the loss of a loved one can be especially challenging. You might be experiencing intense sadness and grief, or you may feel angry towards the deceased for leaving you to cope alone. If you do manage to raise a genuine smile or laugh at something you could become overwhelmed with guilt at enjoying yourself.
All of these things are natural emotions. Grieving is an incredibly complicated and personal process. There is no set way you should or should not feel, and there are no correct or incorrect actions. If you feel you need to act a certain way in front of particular people, try to avoid them so you do not have the added pressure of worrying about what someone else might think of your behavior.
It is also useful to lean on understanding friends and family or to discover a support group where you can go and be yourself without fear of judgment or retribution.
Families are possibly the most significant cause of conflict during the holidays. It can start months ahead as people wrestle over whose turn it is to spend which day where, and people become offended by your inability to celebrate in two places at once. If your family has worked out a smooth way to spread themselves around you might find yourself trapped in a house with your uncle who insists on expressing his own particular brand of awkward opinions. You could also find yourself in the center of a sibling dispute or the first Christmas with your divorced parents.
The first step to avoid getting embroiled in family conflict is to side-step any gathering that is likely to make you uncomfortable.
Avoidance is not always possible so you should plan to use other tools to lessen the levels of stress you experience.
Have some neutral remarks worked out ahead of time for those conversations and comments that are likely to escalate into something negative?
‘I understand that’s what you believe,’ or something like, ‘We could talk about that after the holidays,’ can be helpful. After using your neutral remarks, extract yourself from the conversation and go and help in the kitchen or lock yourself in the restroom for a few minutes.
Remember, you never have to get sucked into these disputes. It’s a choice. Don’t allow other people to guilt or manipulate you into participating in unnecessary conflicts.
Overspending and crippling debt, or not having the money for anything at all, are all stressful over the holidays. We are made to feel guilty if we do not spend lavishly on extravagant celebrations.
Don’t get drawn into the trap of believing that the more you spend, the happier everyone will be. Instead, be realistic about how much money you can spend. Not how much you ‘need to spend to get everything,’ but how much you can afford.
Then take that amount and use some of the other strategies, such as choosing what is important, to decide what you will spend it on. Just as importantly, stick to your budget.
Your child may want a particular $100 toy for Christmas, but in ten years time, it is unlikely they will remember it. What they will remember is their loved ones being anxious and depressed for months on end because they do not know how to pay off the debt they incurred for that toy.
You do not have to be a superhero and do it all yourself. Nobody will think any less of you when you say you can’t do it all and ask for help. If you have a large family gathering, make one person responsible for snacks, one for drinks, etc. Have others hang the decorations while you wrap the gifts, and please don’t try to control everything those people are doing. That’s just heaping more stress onto others too.
You may feel obligated to accept invitations or agree to do things; it might be that you are worried people will think less of you if you decline, or maybe you are scared of missing out on something.
Having to rush between events while stopping off to prepare the dessert you promised to bring, is a recipe for stress and the only way of avoiding it is to learn to say ‘no.’
You do not have to explain yourself or make up elaborate stories to excuse yourself. Simply say, ‘I’d love to, but I have already made other commitments.’ Nobody needs to know your ‘other commitment’ is sitting on the sofa in your pajamas watching old movies.
You are responsible for your own health, and there is no shame in putting yourself first.
If the holiday season is always stressful for you, then shake things up a bit. This year our family is going to have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, so I don’t spend all day on the 25th in the kitchen. On Christmas Day we’ll eat leftovers, relax and enjoy the children’s excitement.
We even put the decorations up earlier than usual, so everything isn’t happening over one weekend, and I did all our shopping online so we can avoid the stress of the stores.
The kids and I even made decorations together. We adorned our tree with tiny trees made from paper cake cases strung on twine and random craft items discovered on the Internet. (This will be our new tradition and one I hope they will remember fondly enough to use with their own children.)
‘You’re right, giving something to someone is better than getting something yourself,’ said our oldest son both learning a valuable life lesson. (And surprising me with the revelation he recognized I was right about something.)
You do not need to dish up dinners on Christmas Day to volunteer over the festive period. Christmas toy drives, senior centers hosting parties, charity gift wrapping at the mall, the opportunities are endless. Not only will you be doing something good for others but you will experience something approaching the true meaning of Christmas.
These short-term volunteer opportunities can often turn into longer-term experiences that help you as much as they help others.
The health of our minds inexorably link to the health of our bodies and the holiday season is rife with opportunities for unhealthy choices. Just when we need to be healthy to support our minds, we are under excess physical stress, undermining our attempts to cope psychologically.
You only have a certain amount of energy. Think of it as being stuck on a deserted island with a giant bottle of water. You know someone will be along to get you in two weeks, but in the meantime, you have to make that water last, no matter how thirsty you get. The sensible thing to do is to have some each day, drinking less on days when you don’t need it so you will have more on the days you feel really thirsty.
It is the same principle for your physical and emotional energy. If you know, you will have to attend a family gathering, and it will be a strain on you, save some of your power in the days leading up to it so you can expend more and not end up dying of ‘mental thirst.’
It is the time of the year when you are most likely to be rushing around trying to do six separate things at once. However, moving about, although better than sitting all day, is not the same as getting some exercise.
Part of the benefit of exercise is the physical effect on your mind. You release those much needed feel-good chemicals into your brain which will help boost your mood. The other benefit can be the act of taking time out of your day to exercise which forces you to take a break from the stresses and strains of the day and switch your mind elsewhere. A kind of meditation in movement.
You don’t have to go to the gym or run several miles, a brisk walk or some stretches in the garden can do wonders.
Staying up late to wrap gifts after the kids have gone to bed, getting up early to pack more into your day, even tossing and turning in a strange bed when you are visiting relatives, these all eat into your precious sleep time.
Lack of rest is one of the first things to place a strain on your mental health. Just as you plan other appointments, make a date with some sleep in your schedule and don’t skip this critical rendezvous. Get some rest or downtime, if not fully sleeping, and make it a priority over the holidays.
Even for those without pre-existing depression or anxiety, Winter can be a time of lethargy and a lack of enthusiasm. Getting up in the dark, going to bed in the dark, and spending the day indoors all contributes to feelings of depression.
To counter this, get outside as much as possible and expose as much skin as you safely can in the weather, to the sunlight. Ideally, you could go walking, but if that is not on the menu for you, just sitting outdoors will help your body.
If you cannot sit outdoors spend as much time as you can by a window or you can also consider a sunlight lamp. This device will replicate the light you would get from spending time outdoors, and it gives the same mood-boosting effects.
It is easy at this time of the year for even the most healthy and strong-willed people to overindulge in less than healthy food and drink. Many turn to alcohol as a way to cope with social events or to get them through a difficult time. That idea is the top of a slippery slope. You could end up having more problems. But, regardless, overindulging is terrible for your body and mind.
We need the best fuel we can manage, at regular intervals, to drive our bodies and minds. By filling yourself with high fat, high sugar items, you will get a boost at the moment, but afterward, you will feel even more tired and deflated than before. The same goes for drinking copious amounts of alcohol, you feel able to cope immediately, but afterward, you pay for it.
There is no reason not to enjoy yourself and indulge a little more than you might (assuming of course that you do not have any underlying medical issues that prevent this). The key is moderation and pace.
In the same way that you should schedule sleep, you should plan time for yourself. You don’t need to book a massage or a day at the spa, although that’s fantastic if it works for you. You should, however, ensure you have downtime of some description.
Decide what works for you and look at when and where you can do that. Sometimes for me, it is a simple a laying down on the bed with the curtains drawn and a thick blanket over my head. Twenty minutes later I may not be tap dancing with joy, but it is enough to lessen my anxiety and allow me to function without sitting on the floor crying onto the Christmas cards I am supposed to be writing.
Do not think of this as selfish or a waste of valuable time. By recharging, you are helping yourself cope better and ultimately deal with more.
For many of us, asking for help is a foreign concept. We either cannot ask for fear of looking weak or incapable, or we won’t allow others to help because we need to do everything ourselves.
By saying you cannot do it all alone, you are exhibiting great strength. People will not look down on you for this. In fact, they might respect your ability to recognize your needs and share them.
It is amazing what a relief it can be not to have to wrap all of the gifts or to have somebody help you with dinner. You can even turn this into an opportunity to develop new traditions. How much more in the holiday spirit can you be than sharing with others and doing things together?
We all struggle, and most of us more so during the holidays. If you take one thing away from reading this, let it be that ‘there is no perfect Christmas. But your Christmas can still be enjoyable for you and your family.”
Merry Christmas and happy holidays, from Sad Runner.