Ah, the holidays! Most people feel a sense of anticipation and joy as we approach the holidays. Time for family gatherings and other fun activities. However, a considerable number of people, including those people in therapy, can feel depressed, frustrated, and anxious thinking about the holidays. These could be people without a family or without a significant network of friends. Or they can be people who have had mixed or negative experiences with friends and family in holidays past. What can they do to make the holidays more enjoyable?
"I don't think I can stand another holiday," said John*, my patient, a 54-year-old lawyer who lives in the city. He's never been married, although he's had a few short-term relationships. His parents died years ago, and he never was that close with them. He doesn't have any siblings. His few friends all have commitments for the holidays. He has had depression since his mid-30s and has been off and on anti-depressants with good results. Of course, he has the week of Christmas off, but no idea what to do with himself. Last year he was so depressed in November and December that he considered committing suicide. A close friend of his did commit suicide 10 years ago around the holidays.
John and others like him are at considerable risk during the holiday season. He falls into a vulnerable category of older white men who have a higher risk of committing suicide, although the highest risk is for men over 75.
Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are commonly reported in the general population, especially during the holidays. People who may attempt suicide complain of hopelessness, rage, and the need to seek revenge. They are more impulsive than the average person. Other behaviors that may be associated with potential suicide include people making arrangements for someone else to care for their dependents, including children, pets, or elders.
John felt a lot of anger and he told me he was starting to drive recklessly. He said he felt trapped with no way out. He was increasing his alcohol use, but he didn't return to his marijuana smoking, which he'd done in his younger days. Other people who have family and friends might withdraw from them and isolate themselves. John couldn't isolate himself any further, but he said he felt no sense of purpose in life.
I suggested the following ways for him to get through the holidays. Even if you or your loved ones aren't exhibiting the type of intense behavior that John is, the following ideas can help lift depression and anxiety:
• Try to schedule a theater or dance performance either the night before or the day of the holiday. In major cities across the United States, many shows are on during Thanksgiving and Christmas. If there is no live theater, go to a movie theater and watch a film. You can do this alone or extend an invitation to a neighbor or business colleague who may be spending the holidays alone.
• Go on a trip out of town. There are many cruises or day trips during this season. John expressed an interest in staying in a country inn upstate where he had Thanksgiving dinner once before. I encouraged this because it linked an image of the holidays with a past memorable experience and could boost the spirits quickly.
• Join a community group such as the YMCA, or take a photography or art class that has planned activities on or just before the holidays. John could take a class photographing trees and turning those pictures into holiday cards or presents.
• Organize a hike into the countryside or a park tour with a group. In New York City and Los Angeles, there are tours every day of the week, including during the major holidays.
• Go to a yoga retreat or a spa resort. Many hotels and spas have special weekend activities and rates at Thanksgiving and Christmastime.
• Plan an intensive exercise routine. John hadn't exercised for a while and he was putting on weight. He hired a trainer who was free the week of Thanksgiving to work him out because exercise increases certain chemicals in the nervous system that fight depression and anxiety.
• Help others who are less fortunate by volunteering at a soup kitchen. One of the best ways to forget your own loneliness is to help others at shelters or hospitals. Getting "outside of ourselves" and helping others in need helps take the focus off of our own situation, circumstances, and feelings, and often delivers a significant emotional boost.
• Try an AA meeting if you find yourself drinking too much. For John in particular, I suggested he go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on the holidays, especially if he couldn't do any of the above. AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) are immediate communities that help people deal with alcohol or drug abuse, which may be covering up negative feelings at this time of year.
Experimenting with a different way of celebrating the holidays this year can lift your spirits and get you out of a funk. For some, major depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts are alleviated if they are engaged in healthy activities leading up to and during the holidays.
*Not his real name.
For more by Carol W. Berman, M.D., click here.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.