HOLIDAY STRESS & "BLUES"
Thanksgiving Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's Eve. These celebrations are upon us! It's holiday time-the time of year when many of us report feeling acutely unhappy, lonely, and dissatisfied with our lives and circumstances. It's the time of year when we are most sensitive to what we have and what we don't have in way of family, friends, physical health, financial resources, and daily creature comforts.
Commercial advertisements and media hype create unrealistically high standards of family holiday togetherness and intimacy. Happiness seems to mean giving and receiving fancy big-ticket items and selecting the perfect gift for each friend and relative. Our social and family circumstances can drive the way we feel about the holiday experience. Some of us are blessed with wonderful families who lovingly express their caring and concern. Others have lost family through illness, accidents, divorce, or broken relationships and are painfully reminded of these losses and lack of connection at holiday time.
Regardless of your specific circumstances, there are things you can do at holiday time (and throughout the year) to reduce the stress, loneliness, and blues that can periodically strike:
1. Choose to be thankful for your everyday blessings
This may require a radical shift in attitude. I assure you, however, that deciding to see the glass as half full can make a huge difference. Each of us has challenges and struggles - some much greater and overwhelming than others. As a clinician I work with some heart-breaking situations that involve broken marriages, chronic physical illness, the death of a child, suicide, and desperately lonely people who fear they will never find a loving relationship. It always amazes me when individuals and families who have lost so much can continue to perceive and express thankfulness for the blessings in their lives. We witnessed so much of this in the days after the September 11th terrorist attacks. All of a sudden the basics of life became the most important thing. Home, and family, and loved ones were all that mattered. Many of those who lost close friends and family members were still able to express gratitude for what yet remained in way of memories, for present and loving relationships, and for a God who offered some peace and comfort in the midst of such devastation.
On a much smaller scale, all of us deal with daily frustration and disappointment. The unexpected happens. Our plans fall apart. And, even the little stuff can really can stress and discourage us. Let me offer a personal example. I live out in the country with my family. We rely upon a well for our water supply. That alone has been stressful-given the drought we have endured for the past couple years. Anyway, some time ago the pump in our well was broken and a large repair truck was sitting on our gravel driveway-blocking access to the house. When my 16 year old son came up the driveway in the family van, instead of asking the repairman to move his truck, he simply drove around the truck through a wooded section of our property-puncturing and ruining a tire on my car. My first impulse was to scream at my son and to ask him how he could do something so stupid. Instead, I caught myself. Instead of reacting poorly, I stopped and started counting my blessings: there are still three good tires on my car, nobody was hurt in the mishap, my son is a healthy and happy 16 year old kid, I have a wife and four children who love me, we have plenty to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over our heads . Mind you, I did ask him to pay for the tire-but was able to keep the situation in perspective. What are you thankful for? What are your everyday blessings?
2. Spend time with friends and people who care about you
Even if you don't feel like it, choose to spend time with good friends and people who can encourage and support you. One sign of stress and depression is social avoidance-pulling back from others and spending too much time alone. This tends to make things worse. It isolates you with your negative thoughts and feelings. When depressed we incorrectly assume that nobody is interested in spending time with us. We can become so sensitive to possible rejection by others that we fail to make ourselves available for social interaction. Each of us needs friendship. So, make the effort to initiate conversation. Reach out to others. Let those close to you know how you're feeling and what you might need in way of additional support and contact at this difficult time of the year.
Look for opportunities to be in community with others. Many folks are blessed with wonderful families and friends. They have a ready-made community of caring people. Others have very strained or broken relationships with family and must search out healthy and supportive relationships. It may be that participating at church, or volunteering at the fire department or rescue squad can provide this sense of community. Choosing to be with positive people, when you're feeling stressed or discouraged, can help you forget about your troubles and offer some much-needed affirmation of your worth.
3. Get active physically
Exercise and physical activity are the best natural antidotes for stress and depression! So, when you are nervous, angry, or upset head for the gym to lift weights, swim, play racquetball, or put a few miles on the bike or treadmill. You'll be impressed with how much better you feel. That up tight feeling is gone and you are more relaxed physically and mentally (See August 2002 Police Interview-Physical Fitness Matters ).
Some of the most frequently reported symptoms of depression or holiday blues are the loss of energy and a greatly reduced level of daily activity. It's true that when we feel low we often have less desire to work, socialize, or recreate. If we continually give in to feelings of not wanting to do anything, higher degrees of inactivity generally result. That inactivity, and associated guilt over being unproductive, can actually increase one's sense of depression. To arrest the spiraling inactivity, make a choice to get physically active-even if you don't feel like it.
My wife and I have discovered that we need to expend energy in order to feel more energized. On more than one occasion, she has discovered me stretched out on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon-professing to be too tired to do anything. She proposes a walk or a bike ride. I decline, insisting that I simply don't have the energy. When I allow her to persuade me to get my carcass off the couch and join her for some physical activity, I nearly always feel better - emotionally and physically. The body's chemical endorphins kick in and a sense of peace and well being ensue. We joke about regularly defying the second law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can neither be created or destroyed.
4. Simplify your holiday plans
One of the biggest stressors at holiday time is trying to do it all! There are gifts to buy, parties to attend, homes to decorate, and meals to prepare. Many of us are very attached to the idea of making it a bigger and better Christmas or New Year's Eve Party than last year. Others seem to expect it. And, we often fall into the trap of expecting it of ourselves. Some family traditions may have been established years ago, and were fun and meaningful at the time. But, do all of these traditional still make sense. Are you having fun or simply having a nervous breakdown trying to make everything just right-just the way it has always been? Take time to ask Where is the value in all of this for me, for my family? Are there ways we can take some of the pressure off and make our celebration more meaningful? How can I simplify by emphasizing the most important things and letting go of habits or expectations that have become burdensome?
5. Serve others. Recognize a higher purpose for your life.
One of the more destructive consequences of stress and depression on our lives is the self-centeredness and self-absorption it creates. When unhappy or distressed it is often tough to think about anything except our own circumstances. Our world view shrinks and we lose perspective. It's all about us-our troubles and worries.
A great way to plow through this self-absorption is to do something for someone else. Call or visit a sick friend, offer to rake leaves or shovel snow for an elderly neighbor, connect with an agency or organization that needs help providing food baskets and Christmas presents for needy families. Perceiving the needs of others and reaching out with deliberate acts of kindness will be at least as beneficial to you as to the recipient. We forget about our troubles for a time, are better able to count our blessings, and often experience a sense of connection to and purpose in our communities.
Over the past several years, my family has gotten into the good habit of helping with a church-based program that feeds and houses the homeless for a week at a time during the colder months. I always emerge from that week feeling uplifted, encouraged by those we've assisted, and more thankful for my blessings.
Malcolm M. Hart, Ph.D.
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