As Santa’s “ho ho ho” drifts toward us, it may not sound much too jolly if we are feeling sad.  We tend to think everyone but us is happy, which is one of the biggest myths surrounding Christmas.  According to statistics, there is a 15% increase in the number of individuals seeking help for emotional disorders in December.  Some causes of holiday depression are:

  1. Enormous pressure to get too much done within a specified time.
  2. Overwhelming financial obligations.
  3. Relationships with family and friends that are more complex and strained at a time when you want them to be perfect.
  4. Hard decisions that must be made on too many things.
  5. A great sense of loneliness and alienation.
  6. A schedule that is too demanding and leaves you unable to cope.
  7. Possible dread of “post-holiday lows.”
  8. Fantasizing a perfect Christmas and feeling incapable of making it happen.
  9. Our expectations have been built to levels impossible to achieve.

10. Family members who fail to cooperate with your carefully laid plans.

11. Physical ailments, having put your physical and emotional systems under too much strain.

12. A worry that children may be disappointed in the gifts they receive, or are too hyperactive or exhausted to respond in a loving manner.

13. Projecting ahead and feeling fearful of what next year’s Christmas will bring in the way of losses.

14. Remembering past Christmases when life seemed better.

15. Mourning the loss of a loved one through death, divorce, or separation.

16. The left-out feeling that you weren’t invited to enough social events.

17. Your weight.

18. Worrying about the bills you have accrued.

19. The feeling that if you can’t be happy at Christmas, you may never be happy.

What can you do to overcome holiday depression?

  • Stop putting unreasonable pressure on yourself to be happy—acknowledge the reasons you are sad.
  • Realize that, in spite of appearances, an individual is no more or less happy at Christmas.
  • Seek out the company of those who don’t put demands on you to feel better than you really do.
  • Be physically active.  Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins (mood-elevating chemicals).  Walk, go to a gym, or try aerobics.
  • Set one or two simple tasks to do daily and complete them.  Plan well ahead of each event to avoid last-minute panic.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol and overly rich foods.
  • Realize that Christmas blues are usually temporary.
  • Get together with others and tell them what you fear the most about holidays.  Saying things out loud makes them easier to cope with.
  • Get sufficient rest and don’t let the “shoulds” of life overwhelm you and take charge.
  • Make a budget and stick to it.
  • Don’t over-program yourself or your family.  Include in your plans only the things that bring the most satisfaction and share the responsibility of preparations with others.
  • Don’t let the media’s emphasis on family togetherness make you feel like you’re the only one who is lonely and sad.  Reach out to others, even if it’s a conversation in the post office or grocery store.
  • If you’re older, acknowledge that you can no longer do all you once did.  Find others with similar circumstances and have a get-together.
  • Join the church choir.
  • If you feel you may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a chemical change due to lack of sunlight in the winter months, contact your doctor.  It can be treated through the use of artificial sunlight.
  • If you know you’ll be alone, don’t isolate yourself.  Invite someone to join you or plan to do fun activities by yourself that you normally don’t have time to do.  You can have fun alone and your energy level increases when you’re happy.
  • Plan ahead for post-holiday depression and organize some unusual activities.  Look forward to doing them.
  • Don’t expect the celebration to be perfect—nothing ever is.  Don’t dwell on regrets such as: “It would have been so great if—-.”
  • Praise yourself for your success and forget the failures.  Realize we all have a limited amount of energy and we are not responsible for everyone else’s happiness.
  • Be aware that, at times, even if you’re surrounded by loved ones and things are going well, you may still feel a hollow emptiness inside that can’t be explained.  Perhaps this is an unconscious fear of what the future holds.
  • Buy yourself one irresistible gift so that if the things you receive are less than wonderful, you’ll still feel satisfied.
  • Don’t compare this year’s celebration with those in the past.  Each holiday has its own highs and lows.
  • Check out a “page-turner” mystery so you can temporarily escape and regain perspective.
  • Find joy in the simple things of daily life and contentment within yourself.  You can choose to think depressing thoughts or those that are uplifting.  It is up to you.
  • Smile (even if you don’t feel like it) as this will increase the blood flow to the brain and stimulate the release of pleasure neuro-transmitters.
  • Do some volunteer work.  You are needed and will meet some fascinating people.
  • Don’t have expectations that others in your life will lift you out of your depression, or even notice that you’re blue, unless you tell them.

For those who have no families or who are suffering losses, holidays can be especially torturous in the emotional toll they exact.  It may take years to ease the sadness of a loved one’s death, and the sorrow is intensified at Christmas, especially if the deceased was a child.

Help is offered through support groups such as the Compassionate Friends for Bereaved Parents.  This organization offers solace to those who have lost children through accidents, illnesses, suicides, or stillbirths.  They seek to aid parents in a positive resolution of their grief.  Harriet Sarnoff Schiff has written a book, The Bereaved Parents, that may be useful.

No matter what has been the source of your pain, keep telling yourself that you are not alone and that there are others experiencing the same feelings you are.  Sometimes you spend the holidays with others and still feel depressed, or spend them alone and have a blast.  Each year brings different challenges.

Depression is generally more pronounced in those who are middle-aged.  As their youth and physical strength begin to fade, they may begin to assess their accomplishments and feel they should have done more with their lives.

But whatever age you are, if your holiday low becomes severe or prolonged, you need to be concerned about it turning into chronic depression where you feel hopelessness and despair.

Be watchful of the following symptoms in yourself or others: things that have heretofore brought pleasure have lost their joy; you may experience sleep difficulties, lose your appetite for food, be disinterested in sex, or have trouble concentrating or accomplishing even simple tasks.  If these are your symptoms, you need to get professional help.

The ultimate concern of behaviorists that treat the chronically depressed is that the patient will attempt suicide.  Before depression overwhelms you, consult the yellow pages.  Look under Mental Health Associations for a therapist or ask your clergy-person or family doctor.  In many facilities, the cost is based on your ability to pay.  A combination of therapy, exercise, and medication can knock out almost any depressive episode.  Don’t delay seeking treatment.

In addition to professional help, find things to make you laugh or smile.  When Norman Cousins was chronically ill, he rented videos of “Candid Camera” and laughed his way back to health.  Use every resource within yourself and within the community, but don’t let “the blues” become the “black dog” of depression.

In addition to feeling sad over losses we have sustained, in an illogical attempt to be part of the frivolity, we too often put our mental and physical systems under so much stress we become totally drained and more vulnerable to physical illnesses and emotional upsets.

Since everyone experiences the strain imposed by the holidays, we’re all inclined to be a bit edgy.  Instead of our relationships increasing in intimacy, we may feel a sense of alienation.  If this occurs, we may wonder, “If I can’t be loved on this day, when can I be?”

Parents also long to feel especially close to their children at this time.  Yet the children may be disappointed in the gifts they receive, be too hyper or too exhausted to respond in a loving manner.  And parents take it all personally.

Be in tune with yourself and if you start feeling you have lost your fervor for life, get help.  The longer your depression is allowed to consume you, the more difficult it will be to overcome.  Be aware, too, of subtle changes and “downs” in friends.  Your encouragement can mean a lot if someone is suffering.  There is help available—even during the holidays—and you can be the one to suggest treatment.  Do so with love and concern, never diminishing another’s feelings.

Joan Haskins 2010

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Joan Haskins

Joan Haskins

Joan Horsley Haskins, BS, MSW, CSW, lives in Salt Lake City Utah and has four children and eight grandchildren. She is the author of five published books, including The Miracle of The Ivy: A True Tale of Comfort for Times of Loss. Joan writes for the Kern County Family Magazine and for Kids’ Reading Room at the L.A. Times. She is a time management and organization consultant and has her own non-profit organization, Greatest Gift, to help prevent child abuse. The proceeds of Joan’s books go to helping orphans in Rwanda gain an education, she has lectured and taught many subjects. In 2009 Joan’s son Rick had a school built in a village in Ghana and had it dedicated and named in honor of his parents, Joan and Richard.

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