Banishing the Holiday Blues

How to keep your mood light during the shortest and busiest days of the year.

It arrives like an unwanted guest in mid-November or early December and lingers into the first days of the New Year like a bad hangover, summoned by the stresses of mounting bills, fights with family members and tasks that multiply faster than Santa can say, “Ho, ho, ho.” Everybody else may be celebrating like the subjects of a Currier and Ives painting. But for you, it’s far from being the most wonderful time of the year. Once again, you’re nursing another case of the holiday blues.

So you want to cheer up? It may be easier than you think.

The first step, according to Dr. Donald Malone, head of The Cleveland Clinic’s department of adult psychiatry, is modifying your expectations. He says many people set themselves and their loved ones up for surefire failure with visions of a picture-postcard holiday. He gives the example of those idealistic souls who knock themselves out baking dozens of cookies, decorating the house inside and out, searching stores for spectacular gifts and attending a whirlwind of social functions, only to end up feeling exhausted, unappreciated and unfulfilled.

“People are just busier these days,” he says. “Obviously, there are a lot of two-income working families. There’s not someone around all the time to take care of everything that ‘needs to be taken care of.’ And it really doesn’t all need to be taken care of.”

For those who absolutely dread the thought of shopping, perhaps the first expectations to address are those concerning gift giving. Instead of fighting crowds at the malls, Malone suggests sitting down at the computer and doing the holiday shopping online. An item such as a well-chosen book ends the age-old dilemma of deciding what size and color to buy.

Dr. Prashant Gajwani, clinical director of University Hospitals’ mood disorders program and assistant professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, reiterates the old but often-unheeded advice of coming up with a budget and sticking to it to avoid the post-holiday regret of overspending. He counsels shoppers to buy only for those nearest and dearest to them.

A few bold families, he adds, have done away with gift exchanges completely. The move circumvents attempts to outdo one another in spending, even if limits have been set; eliminates the disappointment and anger some recipients feel, even openly express, when they don’t get what they want (or, at the very least, don’t get something equal in value to what they gave); and reduces worries about running up debt.

“In this society, we’ve gotten away from religion, these holidays being celebrated more for spiritual reasons,” Gajwani says. “We’ve made them materialistic.”

When it comes to the anxiety caused by interacting with less-than-favorite relatives, Gajwani helps his patients define patterns of behavior that engender those feelings and devise responses to them ahead of time. Those responses can range from simply ignoring a tactless remark to setting limits on what is tolerated, especially in one’s own home. Gajwani offers the example of obnoxious Uncle Henry, a man who typically insists on visiting for four days and spends his time getting drunk and throwing up on the couch.

“When Uncle Henry comes, you lay down the ground rules,” Gajwani advises. “You say, ‘This is what is allowed and not allowed in my house.’ ”

Malone says a measure of peace can also be found in simply accepting situations for what they are.

“Not everybody likes being around their families,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you don’t go around your family — you go into it with the expectation that it’s just something you’re supposed to do. You don’t have to love it.”

Conversely, the source of many would-be revelers’ distress is the fact that they are alone. Indeed, the holidays can serve as a glaring reminder of all that seems to be missing from one’s life, such as a spouse, children or a bigger circle of friends. Many otherwise-happy single folks find the desire for increased companionship a passing fancy (something to keep in mind if you happen to be celebrating with any singletons this holiday season).

“It’s like watching a movie that stirs up some feelings and afterward, when you think about it realistically, you say, ‘That’s not what I would really want,’ ” Malone says.

He adds that persisting discontent can be used as an incentive to make life changes during the coming year — redoubling efforts to get out, meet people and cultivate friendships, for example, or addressing any issues that may keep one from doing so.

For those facing the first round of celebrations after the death of a loved one, “there’s no way to sugar-coat it — it’s hard,” Malone acknowledges. He recommends sharing old photographs, home movies and memories with family members and close friends rather than simply focusing on the fact that the deceased is not there.

“Reminiscing is better than ruminating,” he says. Gajwani advises against drowning sorrows in bottles of holiday cheer.

“Binge alcohol consumption is known to cause depression in the functioning of the brain,” he explains. “It depletes your neurotransmitter stores. And the brain takes a lot of time to replenish these stores — a few months, in some cases.”

Malone notes that persisting feelings of sadness may indicate a serious clinical depression that requires treatment with counseling and maybe even medication. Typical symptoms include a lack of energy and appetite, difficulty sleeping, an inability to concentrate, “guilty thoughts that you’re not doing things right,” even thoughts of suicide and death. (The 10 percent to 15 percent who suffer from what Malone calls “an atypical depression” eat and sleep a lot.)

“It’s not going to go away just because it’s Jan. 1,” he says. “You really do need to seek help.”

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