Healthy Beginnings

Rx For Holiday Blues

Coping with the Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

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, giving thanks, 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 I 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 particular 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 the family

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 expert on Japanese Psychology and the author of several books including, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-reflection. (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) He is the director of the ToDo Institute near Middlebury, Vermont (www.todoinstitute.org) and as a speaker, he has made presentation to business groups, hospice organizations, mental health professionals, Cancer organizations, and others who are seeking alternative approaches to mental health and wellness. In January, 2006 he will be conducting a distance learning program called Living on Purpose http://www.todoinstitute.org/ldlp_purpose.html designed to help people find and stay on purpose. Gregg can be reached by email at todo@together.net. Or by phone at (800) 950-6034.