Originally Published in the Holland Sentinel By Thomas D. Mullens
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” We now begin hearing Andy Williams’ 1963 ode to family, tradition and merriment on the day after Halloween.
However, for many people, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are not the “hap-hap-happiest season of all.” All too often, the season is filled with anxiety, depression, obligations and expectations. Additionally, in West Michigan we get fewer hours of daylight and more cloudy days, and the holidays can become a season to be endured rather than celebrated.
A report by the National Center for Health Statistics indicates that nearly 8 percent of Americans reported experiencing moderate or severe depressive symptoms. Over 7 percent of the men in the 40-59 age group reported experiencing depression, but for women of the same age the figure jumps to 12 percent more info here. Sadly, just one-third of persons with severe depressive symptoms admitted to seeing a mental health professional during the previous year.
Fortunately, there are things that we can do to help manage the stress, depression and anxieties that are collectively known as the “holiday blues.”
- Get moving and stay moving. When the temperature drops, the time spent in physical exercise also seems to drop. But most shopping malls encourage “mall walkers,” or you could take advantage of the snowmelt system on Eighth Street for a downtown walk. Making the effort may be difficult at first, but engaging in cardio exercise is good for your heart and releases endorphins in your brain. You’ll feel better afterwards!
- Watch your plate. If the adage is true and “you are what you eat,” then many of us become cookies, fudge and other sugary treats during December. Eating small amounts of chocolate increases the release of dopamine in our brains and we feel better for a while, but eating too much of the tasty goodies results in a sugar crash that makes us irritable and gloomy. Our brains then tell us that the best way to feel better again is to go back to the dessert table for more, and the cycle continues. Moderation is the key.
- Go easy on the alcohol. Serving alcoholic beverages are a tradition at many holiday gatherings. However, alcohol acts as a chemical depressant, so if you’re already feeling “down” don’t expect alcohol to help you feel “up.” If you historically have problems with alcohol, know when it’s safe to stay at a function and when you should gracefully take your leave.
- Learn how to say “no.” There is no end to the possible obligations that arise this time of year, but we only have 24 hours in our day and need to use them wisely. It is OK to set polite, but firm boundaries and carve out some “sanity time” for yourself. One year when my children were in school, I attended five holiday concerts and three Christmas parties. By the time Dec. 25 arrived, I had very little Christmas cheer left. Setting appropriate boundaries helps manage the stress.
- Stay spiritually connected. Church pageants and other activities are great, but don’t forget to have some quiet time to keep those spiritual connections strong. Be sure to make some time for reflective reading, meditation, prayer or yoga. I had a client who argued fiercely that he was an atheist, but would take sunrise walks on the beach by himself to “contemplate.” Stay connected to the Greater Power.
- Stay socially connected. As the weather gets colder, we spend more time indoors. Make a point to visit friends or share a cup of coffee. When the holiday blues set in, we tend to isolate ourselves, which is the worst thing we can do. Connect with your friends or neighbors and you’ll feel better afterwards.
- Put the season into perspective. If we do not have the time or energy to make 10 dozen decorated gingerbread cookies like Grandmother did, it is not the end of the world. Our own expectations of trying to relive our childhood memories or to create the “perfect holiday” for our families can sabotage us faster than anything. Be kind to yourself and give yourself a break.
- Get professional help. For many people, even a few sessions spent with a trusted therapist or counselor can help to process feelings and perhaps gain some new and helpful perspectives. Oftentimes, just the act of opening up to another person and sharing concerns can make us feel better.
Unfortunately, a holiday season “just like the ones we used to know” probably is not in the cards for many of us. But with some effort, wisdom and awareness, the holidays can still be enjoyable!
— Thomas Mullens is a Holland resident and a practicing psychotherapist.