Any time of the year can bring on feelings of various types of stress. In fact, most of us live today with some level of chronic stress due to the fast-paced and highly materialistic society we have constructed. There are too many pressures to do more constantly, while silent or reflective time for oneself is pretty much non-existent.
There is however a time of the year, which appears to bring on even more stress, and various negative feeling states like depression and anxiety, and that is the winter holidays, often called Christmas by many.
The “holiday blues” have been a common subject talked and known about in our society for quite some time now. There are some reasons why, even as soon as the fall and winter days set in, people get more depressed, like due to lack of sunlight. This is commonly referred to as SAD – seasonal affective disorder. However, when it comes to having the holiday blues, more factors are at play.
Underlying Causes for the Holiday Blues
According to Dr. Ronald Podell, who authored the book Contagious Emotions: Staying Well When Someone You Love Is Depressed, there are two different kinds of holiday blues:
The first affects those who are alone, having no nearby relatives, or who are estranged from their families. They may be new to a community or their friends may lead extremely busy lives or are visiting relatives for the holiday. Internally, they feel isolated and abandoned. The holiday blues hit them hard, as they feel singled out and terribly alone. They can wonder if they are unlikeable or emotionally disturbed.
The second form comes from forced reunions with family during the holidays. Such ambivalent reunions often re-live the same dysfunctional family relationships that have been operating for decades. In a moment of reunion, many families can experience old pain, dysfunctional automatic behavior, and traumatic recollections of horrible times past.
In that sense, this form of the holiday blues is not about being alone but being trapped in old trauma.
During childhood, the emotions of traumatic experiences are coded by the brain into neuro-chemical messages and stored in memory nodes. A person then re-experiences the same emotions that came from the childhood trauma later in life, through similar situations, and the blues set in. The feelings are those of a hurt child and were likely experienced with the same family one now finds themselves visiting as an adult.
And, in fact, the very same conversations, behaviors and conflicts can erupt with the speed and destructive intensity that they carried years ago. Often, the entire family is affected and people begin reacting automatically, which generates waves of negative contagious emotions that upsets everyone present.
Other Factors Which Contribute to the Holiday Blues
From every angle, the holiday season carries messages that revolve around “family time”. Cultural myths and expectations tell us we have to go home, we have to forgive even if we were once hurt, and this puts a lot of expectations on people. Similarly, the same culture tells us that we should feel joyous and merry. This can send both a very mixed and painful message to someone who is depressed, anxious, and ambivalent at best about reliving negative memories.
Dr. Podell explains that this myriad of reminders can be a trigger for unresolved issues such as unsettled grief, disappointment, a sense of isolation and loneliness, and memories of past losses (such as divorce, break up, psychological abuse, death of a family member or relative.)
Oftentimes, the holiday blues are a result of unrealistically high expectations of the “perfect holiday,” mixed with memories of holidays past, loved ones no longer present, and the “not so rosy” reality of the current situation.
We are told to buy all the “right” gifts, and make the “perfect meal” and “play nice” – which keeps us living oftentimes an illusion, if not a lie. This puts unrealistic and unnecessary pressure on all involved, leading to various negative feelings within.
Treatment Options for the Holiday Blues
According to Dr. Podell, there are many alternative treatments for the holiday blues. Anxiety and depression are usually the chief symptoms that are encountered along with insomnia and restlessness. One can try psychotherapy, which helps clarify family dynamics and can ease the distress a great deal.
Other non-medication biological treatments include deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, aerobic exercise at least three times a week, and eliminating excessive alcohol intake.
Many doctors recommend a pharmaceutical approach too, like anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs. However, all chemical substances come with side-effects and take us further out of our body’s natural balanced state. Many of these drugs, like anti-depressants have been linked to many highly negative side effects, with the biggest one being increased risk of suicide, and a long term dependency on the drug.
Thus, staying drug-free, and seeking natural therapy is the ideal way to deal with the holiday blues or depression and anxiety at any time of the year.
Dr. Podell also recommends the following to help overcome the holiday blues:
- Learning to understand the dynamics of troubling relationships that the holidays bring back into our lives.
- Using the principles he delineates in Contagious Emotions to “defuse” from people who create intensely negative feelings in us or who create feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety in our interactions with them.
- Taking responsibility for your part of the interaction and refusing to exacerbate a process that repeatedly leads to despair and anger; be proactive rather than reactive!
- Writing in a journal daily and listing daily reminders of blessings.
- Associating with happy people—surrounding yourself with positive emotions. Findings show that being around upbeat people can boost one’s spirits through mood infection.
- Volunteering and giving back to the community brings generative feelings of spiritual joy.
- Participating in activities and hobbies that bring pleasure and relaxation.
Although our society has carved out for all of us a “cookie-cutter” pattern to fit into when it comes to the holiday season, we do not need to fall prey or become victims to a system that is not working for many. Mindfulness and an expansion of our conscious awareness can allow us to see through the facade.
If you feel the “holiday blues” setting in, consider Dr. Podell’s explanations and identify which type of Holiday blues you are experiencing. This can bring more clarity and understanding of what you are feeling and why leaving you more empowered to take positive action.
In the end, the perfect holiday season is what you choose to make it. Whether you have gifts or decorations, or simply choose to treat yourself to a sunny vacation holiday at this time – there is no right or wrong way to celebrate. It is a man-made holiday, and thus we can make of it what we choose.
Thus, seek out fun, relaxing, and enjoyable experiences at this time and always, making the holiday season work for you, instead of the other way around!