It's THAT Time of year, and it's not joyous for everyone. In fact, for many, it can be loaded with messy feelings and powerful memories. Are you dealing with depression that seems to get worse during the holidays? It's that time of year, and with it brings that demand energy to be happy. Family, friends, fellow employees and unrealistic media images makes it hard for someone managing depression to cope. Whether it's a history of clinical depression, the longer days of winter, past events, or memories of loved-ones lost that contribute to your seasonal sadness, getting through the holidays is a struggle. What are some typical problems that people with depression face during the holiday season?
- Memories of loved ones
- Emotional memories such as an anniversary, birthday, death, engagement, wedding, divorce
- Emotional triggers such as returning home, visits with family and friends, foods, nostalgic music, or any sights, sounds and smells that may be evocative
- Trauma triggers such as accidents or other disturbing early experiences
- Changes in family and marital status (divorce, separation, empty nest)
- Financial issues and holiday-related spending
- Media representations of a sugar-coated family life
- Time constraints and pressure to shop and prepare gifts
- Forced socialization and an increase in holiday-related activities
- Lack of adequate social support, loneliness and Isolation
What follows are some tips to help depressed individuals feel better through the holiday season and beyond:
- Practice self-care –- This is the time to be rigorous with self-nurturing and managing your stress load. This may mean paying attention to good nutrition and sleep hygiene, getting enough fresh air and exercise, learning sitting or walking meditation and relaxation skills, napping and resting or listening to music or reading. This is a good time to avoid or limit alcohol consumption.
- Be grateful -- It really does help to take note of the good things in your life and keep a gratitude list daily. Refer to it often
- Manage your schedule well -- Avoid over-committing yourself to social obligations. Keep a planner or use an app in your smartphone to help keep you aware of what you have already planned. If you're a people-pleaser, this may be a good time to practice NO to activities and outings that are not pleasurable.
- Be mindful of family stressors -- This is the time for tension, drama and family dynamics to play out. When these patterns show up at the dinner table, therapists and experts would tell you to avoid engaging when you feel pulled-in. Prepare in advance neutral responses, such as "Lets discuss this some other time." Your habitual, familiar response may be to do battle, but this is not helpful. Walk away if you must. Also, understand that some things are inevitable, you've probably seen it all before. The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. There will be meltdowns, attention-seeking behaviors and holiday performances, so come up with a plan to protect yourself when this happens. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to spend an entire day or weekend with dysfunction at the holidays. Plan exits and escapes as needed.
- Pay attention to your own expectations -- The high energy of the holidays can engulf you. Having unrealistic expectations for yourself is a recipe for heightened anxiety, frustration and more depression. Give up perfection. It's an illusion, and it's exhausting. Don’t try to measure up to an unrealistic standard of what your family should be, enduring the pain of faking it through your holiday plans as though nothing is wrong.
- Don't go it alone -- Grab a life line and share how you're feeling with a trusted friend, supportive relative or your therapist. This can help you feel more authentic, less numb (if that's what you do) and more connected.
Holiday togetherness can quickly slide into holiday hell for many individuals and families. Learning to recognize and manage sadness, anxiety, anger, personal triggers and complicated family dynamics can ease the stress load for you during the holidays. Before getting together with friends and family this holiday season, think about the personal triggers that could potentially contribute to more symptoms for you. You can't fix others, but you can have more control over yourself and make more thoughtful choices when you're struggling.
One example of a potential problem may be alcohol during the holidays. It is a known fact that alcohol is a depressant and lowers inhibitions. A depressed person will likely become more depressed when they drink. Angry, aggressive individuals may become disinhibited with holiday alcohol use and abuse and behave in destructive ways. This triggers a range of feelings in family members who already may be walking on eggshells, or depending on the family dynamics, at risk for falling swiftly into familiar roles. Another holiday land mine may be unfinished business, past wounds and resentments that flare during the holiday season. A longtime client with a history of neglect and trauma imagines herself wearing a holiday coat of armor. When she feels distress and symptomatic, she imagines her coat becoming less porous and more protective, as if she's enveloped by a warm blanked. This imaginary coat also deflects negativity and helps her to have less porous boundaries. What do you need to do to better protect and prepare yourself during this season so that you can have a mindful and less activated holiday?