Rising above holiday depression with some basic, proven steps
By Don Scherling, Psy.D
My father died on Christmas Day last year and was buried on New Year’s Day in the sub-zero chill of a Nebraska cemetery. While I’ve come to terms with his death, comforted by the knowledge that he lived a good, long life, leaving this world at the noble age of 96, I know when Christmas arrives and the cold snap comes, it will trigger memories and sadness. Like so many millions of others who have experienced loss or other sadness this time of year – most far more profound than my own – I will need to reach into my personal reserves to rise above the sorrow.
For my own sake, and hopefully in a way that’s helpful to readers of this column, I wanted to spend a few moments going over some basic ways to reduce and manage depressing holiday emotions. Managing holiday blues isn’t about forgetting your sorrows; in fact, it’s healthy to consciously address them. It’s about honoring and experiencing all of our emotions, including moments of inevitable sorrow, as we journey toward gratitude and joy.
Know you’re not alone. The end-of-year holidays are one of the most common periods of depression, and yet we often feel pressured to put on a happy face. This is supposed to be a time of joy, giving, sharing and celebrating with each other as families and friends. But those ideal expectations often collapse in a flurry of worry around shopping, spending, cleaning, cooking and gathering. For those who have experienced personal trauma during past holidays – childhood abuse, family violence, the specter of alcoholism and other addiction – those stressors are compounded. No matter the source or depth of your holiday blues, remember you’re not alone.
Get the right amount of sleep you need. One of the most important things you can do to strengthen yourself is to get a good night’s sleep – not too little or too much. For most, eight hours is right. Less can weaken your resilience. More can be a sign of depression and avoidance.
Let movement and exercise lift you. There’s a direct correlation between physical and emotional health. Stay in motion in some way, whether it’s a visit to the gym or a brisk stroll around the block. Whatever moves you, do it.
Practice conscious breathing. One of the proven tools for achieving mindfulness – the state of consciously being present in the here and now – is diaphragmatic breathing. A great example is the 4-7-8 Relaxing Breath. Exhale completely through your mouth with a whooshing sound. Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for seven. Then exhale completely for eight. Repeat four times.
Stick to good nutrition. The well-rested, active you will be better equipped to resist the temptation to over-indulge on the many foods and beverages surrounding us. Enjoy yourself in moderation, but know that a healthy diet will keep you stronger and happier.
Bond with family and friends. We’re social animals. We thrive on connectivity with family and others. Isolation drains our reserves and leaves us depressed. Don’t turn down every invitation to get together with others. If you’re short on family members and close friends, actively reach out to others, whether it’s a neighbor or maybe a social or service organization. You will find again you’re not alone, that many others are seeking the same.
Explore your own spirituality. This doesn’t necessarily mean organized religion, though if you have that in your life, celebrate it. This is simply about personal reflection, taking time to think about whatever it is that gives your life meaning, purpose and connection to a greater whole.
For myself – and for all of you – I know these steps will help soften sorrows and create holidays that will be fondly remembered.
Don Scherling, Psy.D, is a senior consultant and clinical educator with the Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Berkshire Medical Center.