For many people, this time of year is magic. Whether you're Christian, Jewish or Muslim, there are traditions and celebrations galore. The smell of pine, fir and spruce is in the air from Christmas trees big and small. There are lights, whether strung along the edges of buildings or woven through trees or brightly shining menorahs in house and store windows. Incredible aromas float out at us from bakeries everywhere. Gingerbread cookies and holiday cakes, all fresh from the oven, tempt us. Lots of beautifully wrapped gifts fill store windows and of course, there are the people. People smiling, laughing, talking and seeming to be having the most wonderful time at the most wonderful time of the year (as the famous Christmas song goes).
In reality however, this glossy surface is just that. Underneath, many people feel very anxious and depressed. Some of these people suffer with depression and anxiety all year, and others seem to feel it only during the holidays. This often continues well into the new year. In either case, there are things you can do that will help.
According to Dr. John Sharp, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, there are a number of great tips to help you feel better during the holidays. He recommends spending some time figuring out how to take care of yourself.
He recommends routines that are restorative in nature. If you schedule activities like napping (yes, napping) or reading a book, and actually write them down (I'm a big proponent of writing things down) then you are more likely to actually do them. I'd like to point out that these things are free, and don't require anyone else to do them with you. They give you a break from stressful shopping or partying and let you have some space to breath.
Dr. sharp suggests deciding what basics are your priorities to help you get through the holidays. I think this is a very wise idea. For so many of us, we feel overwhelmed with responsibilities to others at the holidays. Getting the perfect gifts, preparing holiday meals or foods to bring to celebrations, planning fun activities for our families, arranging vacations, often leave us depleted and miserable.
Try to think about what few things are really important to you to accomplish. Then decide what you need to do to make those few things happen. Make a list and put it up where you'll see it every day, often. Maybe the bathroom mirror or the frig?
If something comes along making a demand on you, check it against your list. Does it really have to be done, and are you the only one who can do it? If not, JUST SAY NO!
Dr. Jeffrey Greeson, Ph.D., on the faculty at University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine, says there are ways to save your sanity at family gatherings. He suggests being ready with a prepared neutral response if you know there will be conflicts. You can say things like, "Let's talk about that later" or "I can see how you would feel that way."
I recommend something that takes this a step further. If family gatherings are really a serious source of conflict and stress for you, then consider which of these gatherings you can skip altogether. If your family does eight nights of gift-giving for Hanukkah, maybe you can go for night one or night eight and miss the others. You can tell your family you have charitable commitments for the rest of the nights. Then really arrange some of those. Feeling the homeless, reading to children in hospitals or the elderly in senior centers will be so appreciated by those you help and will actually help alleviate your depression.
Many of us have lost loved ones around the holidays and those losses are looming over us when the holidays come each year. Don't try and ignore them or pretend you aren't feeling the sadness. It's better to embrace the grief and let yourself have your feelings. If you do a little of that each morning, it may let you feel better for the rest of the day.
The Centers for Disease Control has written many articles about the importance of sleep, as have numerous authorities in many fields. I firmly believe that sleep is one of the most valuable health regimens we can practice. Making sure you get enough, especially during the holidays, is essential to your mood and will also allow your immune system to stay in shape and keep you well despite the onslaught of sweets and alcohol and other things that are not good for you.
Having a few good friends or family members you can talk to who will just listen and not try and tell you what to do are really helpful. Let them know ahead that you may be calling on them to hear you out when things get tough. Explain that all you'll be wanting is a caring ear, not someone who's going to fix you.
If the depression or anxiety is more severe, find yourself a support group you can turn to for more assistance.
Exercise is another of my mantras. If you already have a regular routine, just stick with it. Don't let parties or obligations get in the way. Make it a top priority and pat yourself on the back each time you do it. If you can't get to the gym, take a walk for 30 minutes or more if you can. You can even run up and down your stairs (if you have them) or your hallway for 10 or 15 minutes to get your heart rate up.
Eating right, as best you can and getting sunlight also helps.
Most importantly, congratulate yourself on every little good thing you manage to do. You deserve it.