Keeping Those Holiday Blues at Bay

Reassess what's important to you, and consider the needs of others, for starters

SATURDAY, Dec. 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- " 'Tis the season to be jolly."

"Make the yuletide bright."

"From now on, your troubles will be out of sight."

Though well-intended, the endless string of glad tidings this time of year can weigh like anvils on the shoulders of many for whom the pressure to be happy can backfire, leaving feelings of unfulfilled expectations, frustration and regret.

And with the nation still trying to recover emotionally from the events of Sept. 11th, this may be a particularly tough season for those prone to the holiday blues.

But you can make it through -- and actually enjoy -- the holidays, experts say. Just take a proactive approach to changing the patterns that have dampened Christmases past.

Central to that change is stepping out of your annual routine and taking an honest assessment of who you are and why you follow the same holiday rituals each year, says psychologist Herb Rappaport, author of the book "Holiday Blues: Rediscovering the Art of Celebration."

"All too often, people get caught up in the emotion of holidays, and they basically go on autopilot," he says.

Such routines as continuously hosting family gatherings that are perhaps too large, or spending more time or money on gift shopping than you really can afford will land you in emotional trouble, says Rappaport.

"It's important to take some time and ask yourself what your history with holidays is," Rappaport says. "If it's consistently stressful or otherwise unpleasant, then think about the true reasons of why you're doing those same activities every year."

For many, holiday stress and even depression can be triggered by underlying issues of self-esteem that surface when the pressures to be joyful get to be too much.

Those who are living alone, for instance, or who've lost a job, or are in the midst of a divorce may find doubts about self-worth exacerbated as they look around and see that everyone else seems so happy.

"The images and portrayals of joy and happiness around the holidays can be overwhelming. And people who are unable to live up to that model can wind up feeling inadequate, or as if something is terribly wrong with them," says Dr. Marc Graff, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles.

And if such get-togethers with relatives and friends mean having to offer an annual update on the progress of your life and career, the gatherings can be painful if things aren't going as you planned.

"The good part of the holidays is, perhaps, getting to see people you haven't seen for a while," says Graff. "But the bad part for some is having to see people you haven't seen in a while."

"Perhaps it's your Uncle Joe asking once again if you've settled down or found a better job yet. And if the answer is 'no,' of course you're going to feel bad," he adds.

That's when it's important to reassess your holiday plans and perhaps have the willpower to change them, Rappaport says.

"People need to be brave enough and imaginative enough to change things that don't make them happy," he says.

So you don't feel up to hosting the big holiday bash again? Try asking someone else to do it this year. Or, maybe skip the big presents and laborious shopping escapades and try giving gift certificates.

"Ask yourself, 'Do I really want to do this activity?" says Rappaport. "The self-awareness goes a long way."

The terrorist attacks, though tragic, may help to bring about a much-needed change in many family gatherings, shifting the focus from the traditional progress reports to simply enjoying and being thankful for each other's company.

"I sensed around Thanksgiving a much bigger emphasis on gratitude than in previous years, and I think that's continuing through the holidays," Rappaport says. "In gatherings where there may have been tension and friction in previous years, there's more motivation to put some of that aside and try to get to the core values of togetherness that are connected to the holidays."

In his book, Rappaport offers a list of "Ten Commandments to Help Improve the Quality of Celebration." Here are a few:

  • Exercise choice. Don't be afraid to take more of a stand on how you really want to celebrate, or if you even want to celebrate the holidays this year.
  • Exercise imagination. Let this year's holidays offer a chance to be more innovative than previous years. Don't want to hit the crowded malls again with your mother? Try taking a long walk together in a park, instead.
  • Practice altruism. "Try extending your generosity and energy to others. There's no better antidote for the self-absorption associated with holiday blues than to get outside yourself and consider the needs of others."
  • Focus on relationships. "The key to making holidays successful is to understand and, as much as possible, accept the taste and needs of other people."

What to Do: Visit the American Psychological Association for more helpful information on coping with holiday stress. And here's information from the National Mental Health Association on holiday depression and stress.

SOURCES: Interviews with Herb Rappaport, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, Temple University, Philadelphia, and author, "Holiday Blues: Rediscovering the Art of Celebration"; Marc Graff, M.D., psychiatrist, Kaiser Permanente, Los Angeles; Temple University press release
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