The Holiday Train Wreck

by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

The holidays are upon us once again, so I thought this would be an ideal time to review some of the common problems people experience during the holidays as well as some tips for coping with these problems. The main problems people experience are increased depression (or feeling blue), feeling overwhelmed by stress and pressure, and overeating.

Holiday depression is common and perhaps up to 10% of the population suffers from it to some degree or another. Depression is associated with the holidays because this season brings back memories of a happier time in our lives. We may remember spending past holidays with a loved one who is no longer with us. Or we may get depressed by seeing so many others who have someone special in their lives -- whether it be their family, close friends, or a significant other -- to share the season. Or it may be a combination of these things and others, such as dealing with an ongoing mental disorder.

Stress is also increased during the holidays. Old family arguments are frequently reignited at holiday time, lines are longer everywhere you go shopping, parking spaces are impossible to find, and you often must schedule your life to try and get to three places all at the same time.

Overeating is another common holiday-related problem. With an abundance of food and drink available at many family gatherings, we often overeat. Many people also use overeating as a way of coping with the increased stress or feelings of depression during this time of the year.

Helpful Hints for the Holidays

Whatever the reason for these problems, there are some things you can do to try and ward them off, or at least minimize their impact on your life. The holidays are first and foremost a time of spirituality and recognition of special religious events. This may be a good time to renew your spiritual beliefs and spend more time in contemplation of religion and spirituality. If you haven't been to church or synagogue in years, for instance, now may be a good time to think about going again. I don't think spirituality alone has all the answers to any of the world's problems or people's personal problems. Nevertheless, it can help you understand your life, your motivations, and your relationships with others.

Beyond spirituality, you can consider turning to those activities and hobbies that have helped you in the past. This may mean volunteering more time at a local hospital or nursing home. Or devoting more time to writing, sewing, woodworking, fixing up things around the house, going to the library, reading, or any of a number of other activities. The point here is to try and keep your mind focused on those things which bring you pleasure and which you enjoy doing. This is certainly no "cure-all," but can be worth a try. Try avoiding places or things that remind you of sad feelings or memories.

There are other things a person can do to ward off the holiday blues. Hanging out with friends or family members who don't have sad or negative emotions attached to them may be helpful. If not in the real world, then you may also consider spending more time online in a support group or chat area that is to your liking. Spending more time with friends can also keep your mind off your depression and negative emotions. Some people avoid doing this, though, for fear of bringing the group of friends down with their mood. This is unlikely to happen in most groups and more likely than not, the togetherness will bring your mood up.

Obviously if you are suffering from a mental disorder which is worsened by the stress or additional emotions brought about by the holidays, you should look into increasing your coping skills. This can be done on your own, or you can ask your therapist to talk more about these skills and find ones that work best for you. The key here is to let your therapist know what you need to work on at this time of the year, and then proceed to work on it. If you're not currently in psychotherapy and your problems are beginning to pile up on you, you may want to seriously consider participating in psychotherapy to help you at this time.

Overeating during the holidays is almost encouraged and an acceptable part of the holiday tradition. Contributing to holiday weight gain is our tendency to isolate ourselves and close ourselves up in our homes and apartments during the winter months because of the weather. This isolation can easily lead to bodily feelings of laziness, sluggishness, and difficulty concentrating. (Some of these are actually symptoms of depression as well.) Exercising regularly helps you to feel good about yourself and gives your body a helpful workout. It may also help to accept a certain amount of weight gain that is normal and natural during this time of the year. Accepting that gain rather trying to fight it or feeling guilty about it will help relieve some of the pressure and stress often associated with the holidays. There will always be time in the future to lose the weight. And, for obvious reasons, starting a new diet or exercise plan around the holidays is not a great idea.

You can help reduce the amount of stress you feel and the likelihood of resorting to some inappropriate coping skills by removing yourself from situations that increase stress. If getting together with certain family members makes you feel bad every year, why not simply limit the time you spend with them to a few hours this holiday season? Make other plans and arrangements to spend more time with the people (friends, other family members, etc.) you do enjoy. Nobody says you must spend a great deal of time rude, obnoxious, or mean people, just because they are your family! If you control the time you spend in such situations, then you are in better control of your emotions and the amount of stress you will have to face.

Additional tips offered in the book, When Holidays Are Hell: A Guide to Surviving Family Gatherings ( by Mariana Caplan) include the following:

  • Temper your expectations. The notion of the "perfect" reunion can set you up for frustration and depression.
  • Call a friend if the family setting becomes unpleasant.
  • Take heed of alcohol consumption. It may seem relaxing in the short term, but its physiological effect can compound stress and depression.
  • Set comfortable limits. Determine how involved and accommodating your plans should be well in advance, and make your limits known to others involved.
  • Reach out to those with whom you have healthy, nurturing relationships. Get together with friends if a family setting is not feasible.
  • Change gift-giving procedures. Consider setting a limit of one gift per person.

There is no quick cure here, nor an easy method you can use to ward off holiday depression, stress or overeating. However, I hope that some of these things may be helpful to you during this stressful and possibly upsetting time of the year.

Copyright 1998 John M. Grohol. Reprinted here with permission from Psych Central (http://psychcentral.com/).

Date published: 12/6/00
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Oct 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

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-- George Burns