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June 26, 2017

Holiday Depression

By Dr. Richard Boyum

We generally think of the holidays as a joyous, happy period. The period of time between Thanksgiving and New Year's is a time in American culture for much celebration. People come together to eat, sing, share gifts and the camaraderie of each others' presence. But there is an increasing body of knowledge that says that the holidays are a period of time that is, for many, stressful at the least and for others, downright depressing. Consider for a moment the following information:

1. The Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday season occurs during the time of year when there are the fewest number of hours of daylight. Research has shown that ten percent of our population is significantly affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Regardless of other factors related to the holidays, sufferers of true Seasonal Affective Disorder may experience chronic fatigue, difficulty in sleeping, irritability, and feelings of sadness.

2. For most individuals, all of the activities of the holidays must be piled on top of all of their other responsibilities that, for most people, include both work and family. The 168 hours that there are in every week cannot be expanded. Consequently, many individuals feel a significant time crunch.

3. Only about 25% of all individuals are living within what would be considered a traditional family at the present time. Death, separation, divorce, remarriage, and job-related separations cause many individuals to feel a dissonance with the traditional holiday-related values.

4. The majority of Americans spend somewhere between 95% and 100% of each paycheck. Again, the period of time between Thanksgiving and New Year's brings about special costs that often increase debt. The research in couples counseling indicates that financial stresses and pressures create significant and long-lasting effects on marriages.

With these thoughts in mind, the following suggestions are offered to help keep the holidays a happy and joyous period of time:

1. Manage your time effectively during the holidays. Set reasonable goals about what can be accomplished during this period of time. In many ways in our culture, time is money. Shop during off-peak times--this means from January to the first of November. If space allows, consider stockpiling needed groceries well in advance of special events. This is a resource to be utilized wisely.

2. Set reasonable limits regarding the purchase of gifts. Unusual or unique gifts, handmade gifts, and gifts of time can create special meaning. Consider sending Christmas cards at times other than peak Christmas card time. When an individual receives a dozen cards in a day, it's hard to reflect upon the meaning and message. Christmas letters are a good idea. If you have a computer, you can individualize a paragraph in each letter, if you wish, and save a lot of time, rather than writing things out by hand. Most individuals can empathize with the number of tasks to be done, so they are not offended by computer-generated Christmas messages.

3. Set reasonable expectations about who you are going to visit and when. Do not pretend that you are the U.S. Mail Service. In other words, in cases of rain, sleet, or snow, you do have the right to change your plans. Again, more families are beginning to pick off-peak times of the year to have their "Christmas" celebrations.

4. If loved ones are absent during the holidays, if relationships are broken, or there have been other types of tragedies, do not pretend that they do not exist. Denial takes more energy than talking openly about these issues. Whenever possible, emphasize the positive aspects of a relationship that has been lost, or allow yourself to put more energy into other relationships that have survived, as you reallocate your energy to other members in your extended network of family and friends.

5. Resolutions really do work. They are simply elegant ways of developing goals. Remember that you cannot do a goal. There are steps to a goal. Limit the number of goals/resolutions for change that you develop. Consider having one that is work-related, one that is nonwork-related, and one that is relationship or family-related. Remember that in developing resolutions, you need to think S.M.A.R.T. In other words, be "S"--specific about what is to be accomplished; be "M"--have a goal that is measurable; be "A"--have a goal that is attainable; be "R"--have a goal that is result or output oriented; and, finally, be "T"--have a goal or resolution that is time bound. Whenever possible, share your goal with someone else and have him/her help you be accountable.

6. Because the holidays are a time in which outdoor activity can be limited due to cold and darkness, do as well as you can in managing your calorie intake. Fatty foods, in the form of cheeses, processed meats, and sweets with lots of butter, as well as simple carbohydrates, abound during this type of season. Try to work out a schedule of some form of meaningful exercise (even walking) during this period of time. If you bundle up enough, you will find the activity pleasant and enjoyable. Target your favorite foods and allow yourself to indulge, but with limitations. Consider keeping things like popcorn and other relatively low calorie munchies around the house. Your post-holiday "ten" may only be a post-holiday "two to five". This, of course, is a lot easier to live with.

7. Finally (and of most importance), remember the spirit of the holidays. Our three major holidays involve some very special messages that we need to remember. Thanksgiving celebrates the bounty that surrounds us. It is people coming together to feast and reflect upon a year's harvest of labors. However great or small, there are things to be celebrated. Christmas is the season of profound love. The importance of giving to others and sharing and bringing joy to the world are central to our spiritual meanings in life. New Year's is a time of new beginnings. A time to let go of the old, forget the past, and to rededicate our energies, our talents, and our love to another year. New Year's is a reminder that, with every ending, there is a new beginning.

Consider sharing some of these ideas with others and building on them, based on your own experience as counselors. In so doing, we (and the people that we serve) may enjoy our holidays a bit more.