Helping the Holiday Blues
Tips and Tricks for Keeping the Season Bright
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least that’s what advertisers, stores with their piped-in music and those who deck their halls want you to believe. But the holiday season can be anything but joyous, especially if you’re alone or just feeling down.
The good news is that there are some easy ways to avoid — or at least cope with — the holiday blues.
The Psychological Causes
It’s no secret that the holidays can get you down. “It’s a weighted time,” said Dr. Andrea Brandt, a family therapist based in Santa Monica, California. “The expectation is a family around a dinner table full of love,” said Brandt, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy with an emphasis in psychology. “If that’s not possible, it can be tough to deal with. We grow up in a society that wants us to be happy all the time, and this isn’t possible.”
When you’re feeling holiday stress, it can lead to unrealistic anticipation and overspending, which in turn can lead to more anxiety. “The holiday expectations are for celebration and joy. When you are a bit depressed and come up against these things, it makes it worse,” Brandt explained.
However, there are many ways to dig yourself out of a dark holiday hole. “Energy follows thought,” said Brandt. “If I feel bad, sad, I can refrain from wallowing in it and come up with some hope. For me, if I can get myself to be around kids, joy is much easier to access. Their happiness is infectious.”
If you must deal with a difficult family member, another important tool is understanding when to set boundaries, Brandt says. She cites the example of a friend who keeps his interactions with his brother short because he knows they can spend only 20 minutes together before his sibling’s negative state of mind starts to bring him down.
Accept that there are people who just lack joy and happiness, making it hard to be around them. The bottom line is to take care of yourself and avoid toxic people and situations.
More Ways to Beat the Holiday Blues
Despite the happy family images that seem to pop up everywhere during the season of good cheer, many people — including those unable to travel to see their loved-ones and those who have no family — are alone for the holidays.
If you are among them, to help cope with bouts of holiday sadness, focus on doing what makes you happy, whether it’s hiking with your dogs, treating yourself to a spa day or splurging on a new laptop. You might also want to make yourself a special meal, keeping in mind that holidays will be over before you know it.
If you know others in the same holiday predicament, organizing or joining in a potluck “orphans” get-together can be another fun way to find some holiday joy. Celebrate the fact that there’s no family tension or corny jokes from Uncle John.
One more way to enrich your holiday season is to do some volunteer work at a homeless shelter — as the joy you’ll get from giving back is sure to brighten your days.
Also, when seeing friends and family in person is impossible, technology can come to the rescue. Set up times to talk or Skype with those you care about most.
Treating Your Mind and Body
Being proactive can greatly help seasonal sadness, according to New York City-based Dr. Ellen Goldstein, a psychiatrist who believes that taking care of your mind and body is key. “As a clinician,” she said, “I ask patients if they are feeling joy, and if they struggle to answer, I know they can use some help.”
During winter, it’s not unusual to experience a low mood and a lack of energy — general as well as sexual — Goldstein explains. The prime time for seasonal depression is from the end of daylight saving time to Valentine’s Day. It’s a long period of low light. Combine seasonal sadness with being alone for the holidays and you have a recipe for the holiday blues. However, you don’t have let the blues get the best of you.
“I am an integrative psychiatrist,” said Goldstein. “I try to get my patients involved in exercise. Think of it as survival mode.”
If you know the holiday season gets you down, sign up for a yoga or exercise class. Or, make dates to go for walks with friends, as this will help you stick to a routine and will ensure that you talk to others and socialize.
Another solution Goldstein recommends is bright-light therapy first thing in the morning. “Using a 10,000-lux light box for 15 minutes in the morning at first, and then working up to 25 minutes a day, can really help,” she said. Or, if you are fortunate enough to live in a sunny area, instead of using a light box build an early morning walk into your morning routine.
“Though not backed by tons of research, I do recommend 1,000 to 2,000 IUs of vitamin D daily,” Goldstein said. “Get a blood test for your vitamin D levels and work your way up to a blood level of 50. Your body makes vitamin D from exposure to the sun and your body needs it.”
Goldstein also focuses on diet with her patients. “Carb craving is common when you’re feeling depressed,” she said. “I like my patients to eat lunch foods for breakfast to keep their blood sugar as stable as possible. Choose things like eggs, turkey sausage and miso soup. Eat healthy fats like flaxseed oil and coconut oil, because they are anti-inflammatories and help fight irritability and low mood.”
Sleep is another a critical part of mental health care. Goldstein recommends a regular sleep schedule that includes seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night.
If you’re feeling the holiday blues, she advises against drinking alcohol — which is a depressant — on more than two nights a week. And on those nights, she says, consume no more than two drinks.
Finally, if your holiday depression is severe and nothing else helps, discuss with your doctor the use of a prescription selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, such as Zoloft or Prozac.
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