[Disclosure: Holiday-Induced Depression and Anxiety [H-IDA] is not an actual diagnosis. However, the holiday season is a common enough trigger for symptoms of depression and anxiety that we've coined the phrase for the purposes of this article.]
We stereotype the holiday season as a time of happiness and tranquility. You can scroll through nearly any form of social media to see happy families engaging in time-honored traditions and loving embraces. There are picture-perfect family poses complete with santa hats and exaggerated smiles. Many people LOVE the holiday season. If you do, that’s fantastic, but then this article is not for you.
In fact, this article is for those who feel hopeless, lonely, heartbroken, anxious or overwhelmed during the holidays. It’s for those of you for whom the hustle and bustle, stress of difficult family relationships or profound grief following the loss of a loved one permeates the season. Perhaps you already know why the holidays are so painful for you. Maybe you’ve experienced a death, estrangement, divorce, financial difficulties, or health problems this past year that you feel ten-fold during what is “supposed” to be a happy season. Maybe you are not sure why you feel this way at all or you just tend to feel a little down or pessimistic around this time. Perhaps the emotional highs of Christmas morning are followed by a sense of hollowness as the tree is taken down and twinkling lights go out. Even when you do have a loving family, your basic needs met, and realistic expectations that things will continue in that way for you, it’s possible to feel an inexplicable emptiness and pain that is magnified against the joy it seems is felt by everyone BUT you.
For whatever the reason this season is difficult for you, here are some suggestions to get you through:
Manage your expectations.
It’s important to be realistic about the unmet expectations you have for yourself, others and the world when it comes to the holidays. Think of the “shoulds” you might be subconsciously filtering how things actually are, through the way you feel they “should” be. For example, “I should have more money,” “I shouldn't have to work so hard,” “I should be able to have closer, more fulfilling relationships,” “It shouldn’t snow,” “I shouldn’t have to work when others get time off,” “My family should be whole.”
The “shoulds” create inner-resentment and can even build up over time to depression and anxiety. Acknowledging your unmet expectations is the first step in letting them go. Do an exercise where you free-write every should statement about the holidays and evaluate whether you are considering your “shoulds” to be objective truths. Challenge yourself to see it more realistically. The biggest culprit of holiday depression and anxiety is often the fear of, or actual unmet expectations.
It’s easy to get focused on shopping and buying- Filling your online carts full to the brim and enough to break your monthly budget is a common experience this time of year. Do you hit that “buy now” button or do you hover over, knowing you can’t afford it and feeling like it’s all pointless, anyway. While shopping can give you a temporary emotional high, you’re better off dumping your online cart and closing the browser. Instead, turn the season in to “doing” and “creating” rather than “buying” and you're going to create longer-lasting memories and better connections with others.
Check out local community events to participate in, say yes to social engagements, volunteer with charitable organizations and make the gift exchanges a side gig rather than a main event. If you’re still hesitant to pare down, stop and try to name every gift you gave or received last year. How memorable were those items, really, just one year later? Did they provide long-lasting happiness? Did they improve your relationships with others? If not, were they worth it? Focus on activities and people rather than things and you will feel much more fulfilled. In fact…..
Focus on relationships
This seems obvious- the reason for the season is about relationships and focusing on things outside of ourselves. This may mean religious beliefs or connection with others. But if you’ve lost a relationship, it’s hard to feel positive at this time of year. Actively remembering your lost loved one and involving the memory of them in the process of celebrating the holiday can bring some additional peace. They are ever-present in your mind, so talk about them and the good moments you had. Honor their memory and spend some time thinking about what they felt about the holidays or celebrations and traditions they appreciated. The grief process is different for everyone so be gentle on yourself if you can do this yet.
Something else that can be helpful is to remember there are likely many people still in your life worth strengthening a connection with. Set a goal to improve or strengthen one relationship. What can you do to make amends or to forgive? Are there acquaintances you could work toward developing a friendship with? Can you work to build better boundaries to feeler safe in a relationship with someone? Perhaps you could learn the Love Language of your chosen person and focus on creating a better, healthier bond by demonstrating love in their own love language. Due to the nature of historically difficult relationships, you may want to involve a therapist in this process.
Be a GIVER of charity and gracious RECEIVER when offered charity.
It seems obvious this time of year, but if you are going through difficult financial times, you may be the one in need of some charity. If that’s the case, graciously accept help when offered. It’s noble to do so, because when you do, you provide others the opportunity to feel meaningful in their own life. That is a gift you give to them. Of course, no matter how little you have or how much you are struggling, you can find someone you can help as well. Shoveling a neighbors walk, paying it forward at a drive-through, writing a kind note or volunteering will help you feel you have purpose and worth. You feel greater connections to humanity when you help others, even if you do not physically interact with the person. You start seeing the good in the world and believing it is there. You know that because you ARE the good in the world.
Please know, the holidays are rough for many people. You are not alone in that. There may be many differing reasons but following the steps above may help you get through them, and potentially even enjoy them, a little bit better.
Have other suggestions? Comment below!
Many of us are striving to achieve something in our lives: Emotional health. Whether we think about it that way or not, when we pursue “happiness,” emotional health and stability is often our goal. One of my favorite actresses is Kristen Bell. You know, Veronica Mars, The Good Place....this cute little film called Frozen.....She is not my favorite because she is objectively the best actress or even subjectively, to me, the best actress. She’s certainly very talented, sure. However, what draws me to her, and many of us to her, is her energy, candor, wit, and obvious inner strength. Okay, maybe this is what you'd describe as a girl crush? Anyway, these traits can’t help but come across the screen and make me feel like I, too, can achieve a Kristen Bell-like zest for life.
On my recent commute, I was intrigued to find out that her husband, Dax Shepard, has a fantastic new podcast and his first interview subject was Kristen. As I listened to the interview, Dax and Kristen were so relatable and brutally honest, as usual. I was again thoroughly impressed with Kristen’s life philosophies regarding having positive self-esteem and seeking to make choices based on what brings her joy. I found myself impressed with what an emotionally healthy person Kristen seems to be. Dax, too, has a lot of wisdom and insight but I mean, the interview subject was Kristin. Even as I was thinking how I could best use Kristin and Dax’s attitudes and philosophies to help my own therapy clients, and in her true, tell-it-like-it-is-while-remaining-adorable Kristen Bell way, she once again brought up her depression.
Yes, Kristen Bell, a seemingly mentally healthy person has a diagnosis of depression. It seems contradictory. How can I state that I believe that even while she describes how she struggles to get out of bed on some mornings due to her emotional state, that I also believe she is thriving emotionally? It’s important to note that I do not know Kristen Bell personally [um, but, six degrees of separation, amirite? It's only a matter of time]. Point being, I can’t definitively label her emotionally healthy, per se. Certainly it would be unethical of me to personally diagnose her. However, I can definitively say that she outwardly displays traits of someone who recognizes the value in, and actively works to maintain her emotional health. So let’s explore what it really means to be emotionally healthy, anyway:
Myth 1: Emotionally healthy people are never depressed/anxious/down on themselves, etc.
Fact: Emotionally healthy people are human [obviously]. Part of being human is having emotions: Yup, all of them. Furthermore, just as genetics and environment can contribute to medical conditions, so can they contribute to mental health conditions. It is certainly possible for an emotionally healthy person to have experienced a mental health condition. However, emotionally healthy people develop resilience, coping skills, awareness of their triggers, and a willingness to continue pursuing emotional health. They are devoted to their task. It’s important to note that there is also a difference between a trait and a state. A trait is an inherent or longstanding way of being. Emotionally healthy people have practiced the necessary skills for emotional health that it becomes closer to being a trait they have. A state is a moment-to-moment emotional fluctuation of being and is influenced by many factors, both internally and externally. Emotionally healthy people have learned how to manipulate their state of being, taking advantage of internal skills and external controls.
How do they do this? When Kristen wakes up and realizes she is feeling down and hopeless, does she wallow in that state of being the rest of the day? Not likely. She may allow herself to feel those feelings for a moment, then she probably takes active measures to change her state of being and connect back to her trait of positivity. She might think of all she has in her life that brings her joy, she might go for a jog to increase her endorphins and increase mindfulness. The good news is, we too, have the ability to change our state of being on a moment-to-moment basis. However, just like for Kristen, it may be necessary to work with a therapist or take medication to increase your ability to do so.
Myth 2: Emotionally healthy people have everything they want/have already achieved all their goals
Fact: Emotionally healthy people usually do have most of what they want. But it’s not for the reason you think. First of all, emotionally healthy can still be susceptible to the subtle/not-so-subtle marketing around them telling us we want/need more. Even Kristen Bell can’t pass up a good deal at Target! However, emotionally healthy people know to be wary of comparing themselves or what they have to others. Even people who aren’t wealthy or have very few material goods can achieve emotional health. The trick they have learned is to fully appreciate everything they have. If there is something they want, materialistically-speaking, or a goal they want to achieve, they set realistic goals to obtain what they want without sacrificing their acceptance and appreciation of their current reality. They may even self-analyze and attempt to gain insight when ever they do feel compelled towards attaining something. And they absolutely work to have realistic expectations of what the sought-after item, experience or achievement can bring them. Bottom line: They live in the present, without overly emphasizing or focusing on what may be to come in their future.
Myth 3: Emotionally healthy people are excited about the future.
Fact: They may be excited, especially about something specific, but more importantly they do not live in fear of the future. When you have learned to live in, be content with, and be mindful of your present moment, you realize that you are just as capable of doing so in future moments. You are empowered to know the level of control you have over yourself and your emotional state, no matter what comes your way. You even recognize there will be difficulties ahead, but you generally feel confident in your ability to use the same coping skills you possess now to move forward. Emotionally healthy people may also recognize the opportunities for growth that come from experiencing emotional pain and hardship. They don’t seek these difficult times, but they have a plan to thrive because of and in spite of them.
Myth 4: Emotionally healthy people have perfect relationships.
Fact: There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Sure. We know that. Okay, but how cute are Dax and Kristen together, especially when they are honest about their respective personal "issues" and shared relationship imperfections? Still, obviously emotional health is a difficult, though worth it, thing to achieve. Far more of us are striving to obtain it than have already achieved it. Because of the many of us in process of achieving emotional health, naturally, emotionally healthy people are likely to have plenty of relationships with people who are unhealthy emotionally. Relationships between emotionally healthy and emotionally unhealthy individuals are no healthier than the established boundaries between them. An emotionally healthy individual knows it is not his or her job to cater to the other person’s emotional state. They do not enable unhealthy people or unhealthy behaviors. Rather, they are clear they take accountability only for their own emotional state.
Due to that sense of personal accountability, emotionally healthy people are more likely to attract others who are emotionally healthy. Having other people around who are also emotionally healthy is a motivation to maintain their own emotional health. Since emotionally healthy people have learned they can’t bring someone along for the ride or achieve it for anyone but themselves, they know they need their strength to carry their own load. They also expect those around them to be accountable for their own emotional health. Interestingly, even this trait is inspiring to those around them who aspire to be emotionally healthy. Modeling emotional health is the healthiest way to help those around them also achieve it.
Myth 5: Once someone has achieved emotional health, they will always be emotionally healthy.
Fact: Once you’ve learned and implemented the skills to achieve emotional health, you are more likely to maintain it or more quickly know how to regain it if you are derailed. We can not control every experience life throws at us. It is always possible to experience a trauma that overwhelms the current ability to cope. Emotional health takes dedication but it is not completely within our control, either.
Consider the action a person who is in good physical health regularly takes: Exercise, eating healthy, and taking care of themselves. Imagine this person get injured and requires time to recover, lessening his or her ability to exercise and leading to some muscle loss. Even in this scenario, the person has the ability to control other aspects of their physical health: How they eat, sleep, and follow the treatment recommended for their injury. If they physically heal, they know how and what to do to get back on the path to their previous level of physical health.
We also have some control with our emotional health, even if there are factors outside of our control. As long as we are recognizing what is within our control, making our best efforts to maintain our emotional health in those controllable areas, and accepting ourselves during the many times we will fail, we may actually be a more emotionally healthy person than we thought. In fact, you may already have your own unique brand of Kristen Bell [insert the name of someone you think exudes emotional health here]-esque, adorableness.
Photo Courtesy of Mark Lacy @ Anylightphoto.com
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition that effects many people around the world. Especially In Northern Utah, we have a distinct winter season that is punctuated by “The Inversion.” The Inversion, familiar to those of us along the Wasatch front, is when our beautiful valleys act as a bowl which collects a lid of thick pollutants trapped in an icy cold air. The result is poor air quality and day after day of dark, gloomy skies. And it seems to go on and on…
Here are some tips to avoid the seasonal depression that can result from these long winter months:
Take a Vacation
I know, pretty obvious. But It doesn’t have to be an expensive cruise. Sometimes, you just need to get out of the valley to feel a little better. Even spending an evening or overnight in warmer parts of the state where there is likely to be more sun and warmer temperatures, can give you the mental boost you need. Set some gift money aside and buy experiences which provide lasting memories.
Get Above it All
Utah is obviously known for its winter sports, so are you taking advantage of that? Go high up in the mountains to get above the inversion and go skiing, snowboarding, etc!
Stay Active (indoors)
Join a gym, an indoor soccer league, go to a skating rink, walk the local mall before work, find a yoga class; whatever it is, keep your mind and body healthy by staying active inside where the air pollutants aren’t such a big factor.
Spend time with friends or make new friends (in person!)
Maybe you don’t have a friend group you regularly spend time with. Start attending community groups or activities with common goals in mind. These groups can often be found on Facebook, but make sure to take part in the in-person get together's they may plan. Keeping up with your social connections can improve depression and distract you from the cold temperatures.
Get Up Earlier and Go to Bed Earlier
Due to Daylight Saving, darkness comes sooner than usual. If you are in a habit of sleeping in, you are missing out on precious daylight hours and we need the sun! So get on an early schedule and stay on it, even when you have holiday time-off.
Focus on the Holidays
This doesn’t just mean the big ones-- Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s. No, make plans for even smaller holidays or make up your own! A lot of people experience an emotional letdown after the big holidays. Pare back on those and plan a couple smaller get-togethers in January, February and March. Maybe a popcorn party for National Popcorn Day on January 19th, for example? Check out this calendar to see what fun days you could make in to a celebration!
Try Sun Light Therapy
Lack of sunlight has been shown to lead to decrease in mood. Try a sun lamp such as this one to help fight the effects of lack of sun light.
Get a Workbook Like This One and use the long, evening hours for self-reflection and improvement.
Go to Therapy
Sometimes, you just need to talk it out. You need to be heard. When your mood is low you tend to feel less satisfied with your work, relationships, and your life. Make an appointment with a therapist and they will be happy to help you figure out how to beat those winter blues!
Remember, Spring is Coming
Winter comes to an end. It does every year. Winter won’t last forever but keeping active and emotionally healthy can help it feel more enjoyable and perhaps even make it feel like it passed a little quicker! Make the best of these 3 (to 5) months and yet use the comparison of those long, dark, cold days to really appreciate the rest of the seasons!
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