Holiday Blues

Every year at his family's Christmas party, Peter Sheras' relatives would drive him to distraction. There was the overbearing aunt who habitually "smooched me or pounded on my arm." At the end of the party, he was exhausted and stressed from trying to evade her.

Finally, after years of this cat-and-mouse game, Sheras, a psychologist, found a way to cope with the stress of dealing with obnoxious relatives -- especially his overzealous aunt.

"I decided to have a conversation with her as if I liked her, and she related to me differently," says Sheras. "She just wanted attention."

Although sources of stress and depression may differ, for many the holidays are not the picture-perfect season we've come to expect.

Many long for the kind of warm family relations that Jimmy Stewart rediscovers in It's a Wonderful Life, knowing all the while that our real visits home are often fraught with stress and tension. Others feel alone during the holidays and wish there were loved ones nearby to share the season.

For some people, the holidays are a reminder of loved ones who are long gone. And with job losses and company closures still rampant, some may feel depressed over losing a job and being hard-pressed to buy presents for loved ones.

Use humor

One tip for any holiday season is to keep humor up and expectations realistic. In a satirical look at the holidays, author Cynthia Heimel writes that some families seem to spend their days before each season's visit planning strategies to "turn us blithering and homicidal."

In a designated "war room," Heimel writes, they divvy out lines to various relatives to undermine her. "Bob, when she asks for a second glass of eggnog, look pitying and mention Alcoholics Anonymous. Freda, when she's trying to drop off to sleep, pop into her room and ask her why she's not married yet... Tommy, ask her how her 'career' is coming and smirk."

Grim humor may help to cope, but there are some concrete things you can do to avoid the holiday blues.

Be realistic

Mental Health America recommends that you take care of yourself first and foremost. That means setting realistic goals for the holidays and keeping your expectations simple for yourself and everyone else. Do less if you have to, and don't spend more than you can afford, because knowing that a huge credit card debt awaits after the holidays is bound to dampen your mood. And remember that the holidays last more than one day, so pace yourself and spread activities you enjoy throughout the season.

If you're spending time with relatives, avoid confrontations about past conflicts, advises Sheras. "Holidays are not a good time to tell your mother you were mad at her for not protecting you when your father abused you," he says dryly. Sheras suggests you try to work on issues with your family before the holiday party. If you don't manage to resolve them, however, wait till after the holidays to bring them up again. That doesn't mean you should bottle up all your feelings. Seeking out a sympathetic family member or friend can go a long way toward shoring up your sanity.

Stay healthy

Most of us overindulge around the holidays. If you're not in the best of spirits, bear in mind that eating a lot of sweets and carbohydrates may feel comforting at the time, but can make you moody later. So can drinking alcohol to excess.

You'll also feel better if you continue to exercise. By following your exercise routine, not only will you burn off the calories from the holiday dinner, you'll also relieve a good deal of stress. If you don't have time to go to the gym, take a long walk with a friend.

Reach out

Many of us don't have close friends or relatives nearby with whom to share the holidays. If you find this troubling, reaching out to others may make you feel more in tune with the holiday spirit. Volunteering to help someone who can't get out to shop, serving food in a soup kitchen, or inviting over other friends who are far away from family may make you feel less lonely. Check the local newspaper as well: Nearby clubs or religious organizations may hold celebrations that interest you.

Herbert Rappaport, a psychologist and the author of Holiday Blues: Rediscovering the Art of Celebration, recommends acting on your altruistic instincts. "Reach out to people in greater need or find people in the same boat and plan something with them," Rappaport says.

He advises that people "try to exercise some creativity about what you can do when you're alone, whether it's going to the movies or traveling -- anything but sitting around morosely in self-pity."

According to the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, the holidays may be especially hard for seniors who are isolated or mourning loved ones. Family members should be especially concerned if they notice a loved one using more than normal amounts of alcohol, pain medications, or sleeping pills. They should also be vigilant as to whether someone is acting confused, can't concentrate, seems lost in the midst of family affairs, or can't seem to stop crying.

If you or a loved one sink into feelings of despair or apathy that don't go away for two weeks or longer, however, you may be clinically depressed and should seek professional help. The typical symptoms of depression include a sense of hopelessness, boredom with or lack of enjoyment in activities that were previously pleasurable, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, thoughts about suicide, and difficulty concentrating.

If you've had the holiday blues anytime in the past, you know they usually subside when you jump back into a regular routine. "Life brings changes," the Mental Health America reminds us. "Each season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way."

Poet Wallace Stevens, writing in his journal, put it simply: "Life seems glorious for a while, then it seems poisonous. But you must never forget, it really is glorious after all. Only you must not search for this glory, except in yourself, in the hidden places of your spirit and in all your hidden senses."

Further Resources

American Psychological Association, www.apa.org

Mental Health America 800-969-6642 http://www.nmha.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov

American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry http://www.aagponline.org/news/pressreleases.asp?viewfull=19

References

Heimel, Cynthia, If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet? HarperPerrenial, New York

Interview with Peter Sheras, clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville, who has guided many clients through holiday depression.

Interview with Herbert Rappaport, professor of political psychology at Temple University, a psychologist in private practice, and the author of Holiday Blues: Rediscovering the Art of Celebration (Running Press, 2000).

"Preventing Holiday Blues," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/safeusa/blues.htm

"Other Mental Illnesses: Holiday Depression and Stress," National Mental Health Association, www.nmha.org/infoctr/factsheets/103.cfm

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