December 1, 2007

Rx for Holiday Blues: Coping with the Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

by Gregg Krech

Ideally, the holiday season should be a time for good cheer. But for many, they are also a time for loneliness, sadness, anxiety, depression, and family conflict. Frequently people feel a profound sense of relief once the holidays are over. It's a bit ironic that we should look forward to the end of this season, when it could be a time for celebration, thanksgiving, and family reunion. Here are seven things you can do to make this a better holiday season for you and those around you:

1. De-commercialize your Holidays

For many families the "real" meaning of the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc...) gets buried in hi-tech presents, credit card debt, shopping at malls, football games and parties with lots of unhealthy food. Five years ago my wife and are read an article by environmentalist Bill McKibben called The $100 Christmas. The theme of the article was to de-commercialize the holidays by taking the emphasis off of buying lots of gifts and redirecting energy towards family, spending time with friends and rediscovering the meaning of the holidays. McKibben suggested spending no more than $100 on gifts. So we started making apple sauce and wreaths from wild grapevines. We spent more time walking on quiet, snowy roads and less time navigating crowded malls. I learned to play a few Christmas Carols on the piano and we sang them while being warmed by the fire in our wood stove. My wife baked cookies sweetened with Vermont maple syrup. We've continued this for the past few holiday seasons, making slight adaptations each year. Each Christmas Day we walk around the woods and leave bird seed for the birds. The money we save on gifts is given to charity and we don't have any horrifying credit card statements to review in January (what a terrible way to start the new year). Try rethinking your holidays this year. Throw out some of your old traditions and start some new ones that give more meaning and spirit to your celebration.

2. Keep your sugar intake low

Don't underestimate the role of two essential holiday villians when it comes to depression, fatigue and irritability � alcohol and sugar. Both are drugs and according to Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D. (author of Potatoes Not Prozac); they wreak havoc with your blood sugar system. You might get a quick "lift" from some Christmas cookies with green icing. But it may not be long before you find yourself craving a cup of coffee or a piece of pie just to help you feel a bit more alert. Whatever goes up must come down � and that's particularly true of your blood sugar. And as your blood sugar levels crash so does your energy level and your spirits.

Psychiatrist William Philpott, M.D. tells of a woman who was hospitalized because she was depressed and suicidal. He did a six-hour glucose tolerance test for hypoglycemia. "One hour after giving her glucose, I checked on her. Her blood sugar was high - 180 - and her mood had drastically changed to euphoria. Two hours later, her blood sugar had dropped to 40, and her mood had dropped right down with it. There she was in the depths of depression again." If you struggle with depression and fatigue during the holidays, this is the time to just say no to holiday treats and champagne refills.

3. Get outside and exercise

Exercise can play an important role in lifting your spirits and fighting off depression; in fact, it can be as effective as medication with less side effects. As an extra bonus, you can get some natural sunlight while your outside (which also helps to fight depression during winter months). The holidays can be a busy time for many of us. Make sure you continue to set aside some time to get your body and mind moving in a healthy direction.

4. Stop trying to control your family members

Many of us use the holidays as a time for reconnecting with our families including those family members who would be doing so much better if they would just take our advice about how to fix their lives. Of course they haven't in the past, but this might just be the time they're ready to listen to us and "see the light." As an alternative, why not leave our teacher/counselor hat in the closet and just concentrate on being a loving son/sister/cousin/parent. We can play this role quite well without ever giving advice. And if someone else is trying to fix our life, well, just listen, thank them for their concern, and perhaps ask them if they'd like to go outside and help feed the birds.

5. Do something for others - not just your own family

Some of the most memorable and rewarding holiday experiences were when I stepped outside my own needs and problems and did something helpful for others. On several Thanksgivings I served meals at a homeless shelter. And I spent many Christmas mornings helping kids in a Children's hospital open gifts. Last year I spent Christmas day with my about-to-be-adopted daughter in Vietnam. In retrospect, I got much more from these experiences than I gave. They were often the high point of my holidays and helped me get some perspective on my own difficulties and struggles. What could be more in line with the holiday spirit than to help a neighbor, or friend, or even a perfect stranger?

6. Reflect on your Good Fortune

For the past nine years I have used the time around Thanksgiving as a way of reflecting on my life, particularly my good fortune. I participate in a 30 day self-reflection program sponsored by the ToDo Institute that establishes a daily exercise in self-reflection for the entire month of November. Generally, on Thanksgiving or the day before, I make a list of 100 things for which I am most grateful at this point in my life. The list changes each year. Self-reflection helps me shift my attention to the practical ways the world is supporting me so I don't just take these things for granted (for example, hot water for a shower). It also inspires me to want to give something back in return.

7. Focus on the present

Much of our emotional suffering occurs because our attention either jumps to the future (worries about what will happen) or drifts to the past (sadness about what already happened). If we can develop more skill at keeping our attention present we are more likely to become fully absorbed in what we are doing in the present moment. We may be helping to cook some squash for dinner, or playing with our niece in the snow. The present moment is our real life. If we fail to pay attention we are more likely to struggle with psychological problems while our real life passes us by.

Finally, don't expect to feel happy, grateful and joyful throughout the holidays. It's not natural. What is natural is the ebb and flow of feelings from one moment to the next. When those inevitable moments of depression, fatigue or anxiety present themselves, don't let them paralyze you or throw you off course. Just take them along on your walk or let them accompany you while you bake some bread. They'll move on, just as sure as winter will turn into spring.

Gregg Krech is a leading authority on Japanese methods of psychology (Morita and Naikan) and author of the award-winning book, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) He is the the Director of the ToDo Institute near Middlebury, Vermont and conducts workshops and retreats for businesses, churches, and non-profit organizations. His work has been featured on National Public Radio and in popular magazines and he will be conducting the distance learning program Living on Purpose starting on January 14, 2008.

Posted on December 1, 2007 11:30 AM
Comments

Mnay young and old have chronic physical pain. During the holidays their strive to keep up but painfully both physical and emotionally, their depression is overwhelming.
I'd like to see facts on how to's dealing with this serious downfall. I chair a chronic pain group and will forward this information.
Thankyou

Posted by: Linda on December 7, 2005 1:15 PM

Hello, this is a thank you to Gregg Krech. This past month has really had me on emotional highs and lows and I feel so depressed. I read your entire article and the suggestions are what I call "real life applications". I am a born again Christian and people think because of this you are exempt from these low feelings of depression and the like. When I try to talk to friends and family, they just don't get it. I know "This too shall past", but it helps to know someone understands. With prayer and the suggestions you listed, I know I will be fine. Thanks agains and God Bless.

Posted by: Reese on December 22, 2004 4:29 PM

I really hate to bother y'all...But, at this time of year I usually take the time to remind people about things that have happened throughout the year that should make us extremely grateful that we are who, what, and where we are right now. In years past, I have sent out Christmas cards with reminders about recent disasters, (like fires, tornadoes, floods, chemical spills, etc.) important people who have passed out of our lives,(like Mother Theresa) or the current situation in the world regarding the war in Iraq, the flailing economy, political strife or anything else that might escape our attentions as we run around the shopping malls spending money frivolously or decorating our beautiful homes for the Holidays, while others may be far away from their families, friendless or even homeless.

This year I am taking the opportunity to speak out about something of which few of us may be aware. That, our world is changing fast, ---faster then many of us can keep up with, --- and we must always remember that these are "The Last Days." That, these changes are occurring so that we can prepare for the New World of Righteousness, that is coming, very soon. I do not mean to frighten anyone, or to be the harbinger of bad news, or to sound too spooky, crazy, or weird... I just wanted to remind everyone that God does not ever take a holiday whatever the situation. He is " on-call" 24/7, and his job is far from being completed despite whatever atrocities are taking place in the world right now. In fact, his main task is just about ready to begin;--- that of taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves in the face of extreme adversity.

It has always been my dream to get people to stop giving to the greedy and to give more to the needy for the holidays. We cannot destroy thousands of years of history and tradition in one fell swoop, but, I suggest that instead of giving unnecessary presents to unappreciative people who already have more "things" than they could ever possibly use, or giving your bad-assed children one more new toy that they are only going to break up the week after Christmas, that you find a family or even just one or two people in your neighborhoods who would appreciate receiving a special gift from you and your family.

I am not suggesting that you invite a homeless person to dinner (or anything dangerous like that), but how about stopping by that little old lady who lives down the street's house and seeing to it that she has a good hot meal, a warm coat, or a nice pair of slippers to wear for the winter? We really need to teach our children that giving and taking care of our fellow humans is a whole lot more important than waking up Christmas morning to a living room fully of wrapping paper. I am quite sure that there are some people you know, who may not qualify for Welfare, or who do not belong to your particular church, who could benefit from your generosity. And, let's remember to keep up the spirit of sharing and giving throughout the year, not just during the holidays.

Thanks for listening and have a safe and happy Holiday Season!

Sincerely, Ms. Carla J. Miller

Posted by: CARLA J. on December 24, 2003 2:42 PM

Just I am glad that I feel thankful for any little thing I get.

Posted by: Maria on November 23, 2003 2:31 AM
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