I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Terry Gilberg, host of Think! America national radio show last week about strategies to combat holiday depression. I mostly focused on the first point of my seven strategies below, to allow yourself to feel all the emotions of the holidays, not excluding sadness.
For highly-sensitive folks and persons predisposed to sadness, the holidays create a perfect storm for depression. There is the added stress of holiday shopping, decorating, and parties, not to mention dealing with strained family relations; snowball and gingerbread cookies seem to stalk you; and a sense of forced merriment has a way of making you feel like a total loser if change the radio station when Jingle Bells comes on. According to research posted by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of people said they felt stressed and fatigued during the holidays. Half said they felt irritable and one-third felt sad. So even though you may feel like the only one struggling this time of year, you’re hardly alone.
Every year I write one of these pieces—how to get through the holidays. And every year my advice changes, because I’m always in a different place. Here’s this year’s list of ideas on how to maintain your sanity during the “most wonderful time of the year.”
1. Feel the Sadness
Every time I see the movie “Inside Out,” I am reminded of the critical role of sadness in our lives despite our uneasiness with this emotion. We may try like heck to eradicate it completely or at least confine it to a small corner of our brain, but the truth is that our sadness is intimately connected to our joy, and vice versa. Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet: “When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
December is packed full of joy, which, in my opinion, is why it’s also full of sadness. Along with everything that makes you smile—the look of wonder on a child’s face sitting on Santa’s lap, an engagement ring, a puppy under the tree—there is the sense of grieving … of loved ones now gone, of past relationships, of lost dreams or what you wish could have been. For me, when I’m listening to a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria” or “O’ Holy Night” during the month of December, there is a feeling of pure joy, but there is also sadness. This year I’m trying to allow the sadness and remember its critical place in the range of human emotion.
2. Know It Will Pass
In all my years of dealing with depression, I believe the most powerful piece of advice is this: know that it will pass. It’s a temporary thing, depression … even in chronic cases. I panic less when I consider my emotional pain like labor pains—it gets very intense, followed by pockets of rest. Even in excruciating depressions, there are minutes, maybe hours, when I can relax in my skin. So I tell myself during a nail-biting episode that this pain isn’t solid. It has holes where I can breathe. Some waves of anxiety feel twice as tall as I am, engulfing me in their movement. But then there are moments of calm. Knowing that depression is temporary is especially consoling in December, because much of it is triggered by the season. The extra stress, pressure to be happy, and loneliness of the month will be gone shortly after the New Year’s sales are over and the ivy is put away.
3. Respond, Don’t React to Stress
If you have a pulse, you are going to have some stress if your life, especially during the holidays. So do your best to respond to it, instead of reacting to it. Bestselling author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says in his book Full Catastrophe Living, “As soon as you intentionally bring awareness to what is going on in a stressful situation, you have already changed that situation dramatically and opened up the filed of potentially adaptive and creative possibilities just by virtue of not being unconscious and on automatic pilot anymore.” A little awareness can often be the difference between feeling uncomfortable and experiencing panic.
4. Do Things That Make You Feel Good
In his book Unstuck, psychiatrist James Gordon gives the reader instructions on how to write out a “prescription for self-care,” how to design a self-healing package of things that will make you feel better—activities that don’t require anything but a little time and initiative. If you are a Sound of Music fan, this is the same thing as making a list of “your favorite things.” And then doing them. My healing package includes things like time in the woods, watching reruns of “The Office” with my daughter, buying one of those fancy bath bombs at Lush and spending an hour in the tub. During the holidays, it’s especially important to find the time to do those things that energize us and make us more emotionally resilient.
5. Let Yourself Indulge
Usually I include something in this list like “watch the sweets,” and go on to say that white flour hijacks your central nervous system. This year, in an attempt to be more self-compassionate, I am instead going to say indulge. I’m with Jacques Torres. “Life is short. East dessert first.” Forget about your diet and all the restrictions. If you want to consume an entire gingerbread house, go for it. And chase it down with eggnog.
6. Know Your Triggers
We all have holiday triggers. For a single friend of mine, it’s all the Christmas cards—one happy family picture after another, and the letter that goes with it detailing Little Jimmy’s baseball career and Little Sally’s school project that was acknowledged by the pope and the president—together! Theoretically, if we can identify our triggers, we can design some strategies to lessen our suffering. This year, as I work on believing that I am enough aside from any athletic or work performance, I have been trying to avoid people, places, and things that bring out the overachiever in me.
7. Go Deeper Into It
Instead of resisting the holidays, try to go deeper into it. Embrace the more spiritual message of the season. Think like a child, and get back to the sense of faith and hope that the holidays are about. I make a list of things to do that will help me with that: I read Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Clause over and over again; I listen to Josh Groban’s “O Holy Night,”; I attend Handel’s Messiah; I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”; I visit holiday train exhibits; and if I can stay awake for it, I go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
I just came across your article regarding depression and feeling suicidal. I am all of that and beyond. I honestly scare myself. I feel enslaved to this fate but I promise you I fight it constantly. I fight the urge to end it constantly. I realize I have a hormonal imbalance due to having no thyroid and recently getting a hysterectomy (without wanting it). Are there supplements I can take to perhaps take? I’m truly scared.
I spoke to my daughter who also had her thyroid removed and has experienced all sort of problems.
She went to see a nutrionalist and ended up trying various supplements : something to support her adrenal glands to help with anxiety. She also takes folate and Vitex support to help with PMS
Plenty of exercise and healthy diet and little or no alcohol.
Obviously what works for one doesn’t work for another. But theses straigies have helped her.
I think with all things it is little steps. Maybe start with the nutrionalist. I don’t know where you live my daughter lives in Australia. Plus I realize that it can be expensive.
Sometimes we try too hard and everything at once. It is better to choose one thing and then add another. But it’s a good idea to get some advice when it comes to taking supplements . Lizzie
What a lovely piece of writing Therese. Something to lift the spirits. Wishes you and your family joy peace and contentment at Christmas this year. And may the New Year bring good things.
Love from Lizzie
Thank you Therese for all the helpful pointers! As a mother of 3 adult children, I am learning to let go of expectations (and smile at my friend’s recitations of their most WONDERFUL plans for the holiday). One mantra I try to repeat ….”it’s just one day”. It also helps to remember the “reason for the season”. Merry Christmas!
Therese, I have been reading your blog for years now. I cannot count the number of times your words have helped me through my episodes of depression. They are temporary, you are right. This December is being are real big trigger grinch for me. There is nothing like being the business accountant working at the end of the year while everyone else glides through work days like it is just one long office party. Top it off with being single, orphaned and childless and Christmas is big reminder of all that is missing. Thank God for my girlfriends and especially you. You are an angel on this earth.
You are so right Therese. Part of the joy of Christmas is really the flip side of sadness. While we get ready for another Christmas without my dad and grandparents, we celebrate the day in light of happier days when the family was bigger and the easy oblivion of youth allowed us to take it all as one big party. Now the season has so much more meaning and depth – and sadness – at what is no longer there. Yet we celebrate nonetheless, knowing that those who have passed on celebrate fully and are still present in their special way. Thank you for the very unique gift you bring to this community. Merry Christmas Therese.