I feel guilty writing that: “getting through the holidays.” I’ve done an excellent job this year of scheduling events that will force my brain to appreciate the magic of the holiday season: I actually participated in a cookie swap even though sugar makes me suicidal; I made time last week to attend a friend’s holiday concert and to celebrate afterwards; and I even went to the Nutcracker ballet with my daughter last weekend. However, now that the kids are home for two weeks, and snowball cookies (you know, the balls covered in powered sugar) are lying around, I know I’m in the danger zone. The 14-days ahead of me are critical mental health days where I must reach for any and all discipline that lies inside me. Here is my plan:
1. Avoid sugar and white flour.
To avoid sugar and white flour during the holidays sounds, I know, like avoiding snow in January. But I don’t need to read the research about how unbalanced blood sugar levels affect your mood, or how simple carbs use up mood enhancing B vitamins, or how sugar consumption triggers chronic inflammation, or how sugar suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BDNF. I don’t need to read the abstract by British psychiatric researcher Malcolm Peet, who conducted a provocative cross-cultural analysis of the relationship between diet and mental illness and found that there was a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of both depression and schizophrenia. I don’t need to read the studies because I know that every time I put something made with d sugar or white flour in my mouth, I want to die. I experience death thoughts. I can’t afford to fight those during Christmas, so I’m staying away from the cookie tray and the pies.
When I miss even one day of aerobic exercise, I face the unpleasant consequences of fighting death thoughts. So I plan on getting up before the kids on Christmas morning and riding the stationary bike, getting my heart rate up to 135 beats per minute for at least 60 minutes, the quota that I have found that works to shut the thoughts down. Volumes of research point to the benefits of exercise for mood, such as the study led by Dr. James A. Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University. He discovered that, among the 202 depressed people randomly assigned to various treatments, three sessions of vigorous aerobic exercise were approximately as effective at treating depression as daily doses of Zoloft, when the treatment effects were measured after four months.
There was a time at the beginning of the year where I was meditating 15 or 20 minutes day. Not now. My mind is too distracted and panicked. But I pray. I pray constantly. I start with the Prayer of St. Francis, “Make me an instrument of your peace.” Sometimes I just pray that over and over again. Or I will pray the rosary. Or, if I’m without words, I will just hold it. Or repeat a mantra of two, “Everything passes,” or “I am okay,” or “Peace be with me.”
4. Get Support.
Maybe I’m fretting this year’s holiday season less than the ones in the past now that I have an online support group, Group Beyond Blue, that is there when I it. Research shows that support groups aid the recovery of a person struggling with depression and decrease chances of relapse. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in December of 2001 in which 158 women with metastatic breast cancer were assigned to a supportive-expressive therapy. These women showed greater improvement in psychological symptoms and reported less pain than the women with breast cancer who were assigned to the control group with no supportive therapy. Brainstorm with your friend on ways to get more support. Research and share with your friend various groups (online or in town) that might be of benefit.
5. Make a Plan
If you’re wigged out about spending Christmas dinner with a relative or two who seems to know your trigger button and likes to hit it every time he sees you for giggles and kicks, then do some preemptive planning before your dinner. You would be wise to start strategizing before the doorbell rings about where you are going to sit, what conversations you will have, how you will respond to sensitive issues, and boring questions you can ask to fill the uncomfortable voids. You might invent five or so canned retorts to be used when unjustly interrogated, or compile a list of necessary exit plans should you reach the about-to-lose-it-in-a-big-way point. Visualizations can also help. For example, picture yourself inside a bubble, with an invisible layer protecting you from the toxic stuff on the outside.
6. Repeat: It’s Not About Me
You think it’s about you when your brother calls you a “selfish, lazy, son of a something,” but actually it’s not. He may point his finger at you and say, “You. I’m talking about you.” But he’s really not. He is seeing something that has nothing to do with who you are. Don Miguel Ruiz says this in his classic book, “The Four Agreements”: “What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds… Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians… But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell.” That’s good news for all of us who make a habit of taking everything personally. It frees us to be ourselves, even when charged with a character flaw backed by supposed evidence.
Published originally on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.
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