Gill Stannard

Monday, November 24, 2008

holiday blues

Christmas tends to polarize peoples feelings. While some love the rituals that lead up to the 25th of December, for those at the other end of the spectrum it can find this a painful and depressing time of year.

The numbers of people for who do not even believe in Christmas is growing. According to the 2006 census, 32% of Australian did not define their beliefs as Christian, so about one third of us find this festival irrelevant.

But for the two thirds of the population for who actively participate in the season, it can be an alienating experience to feel indifference or despair at the time of such a culturally significant festival.

There are lots of reasons why this can be a difficult time. Being away from family, or experiencing it shrink through members dying, can transform the day from childhood fun to adult misery. For people prone to depression, just the commercial bonhomie of the season can be overwhelming and have a paradoxical effect.

Others may on the surface like Christmas but feel overcome by the trappings or feel they have too many social events to juggle. The commercialisation of the season can be irritating, so too the pressure to spend more money than is comfortable on presents and create a feast for others to enjoy while you slave in a sweltering kitchen.

Lifeline has an article online Staying Balanced over the Festive Season:
First and foremost, it is important to be aware of your own limits and to recognize the signs of stress, anxiety or depression - these can include symptoms such as irritability, tiredness, loss of appetite etc. About 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health problem that requires professional treatment at some time in their life. Many more will experience times of crisis, stress, depression or anxiety.

Lifeline’s tips to deal with the season include:

Take time out for yourself; do something that makes you feel good

Look after yourself physically, make sure you get a good night’s sleep, eat well and get some exercise. If you look after your body you will feel better too

Limit alcohol and other drugs. There can be a temptation to drink too much at Christmas, but alcohol can fuel arguments and cause unwanted behaviours.

If you are feeling down or stressed, tell someone how you are feeling, e.g friends, family or colleagues.

Understand that it is common for people to feel stressed at this time of year. This could include your family and friends too.

Know your limits and have a plan for dealing with stressful situations. If you need to calm down, perhaps a walk, some time out on your own will help.

Try not to expect too much – aiming for the “perfect” Christmas or assuming that everyone one will be on their best behaviour may not be realistic.

Finding meaning/strategies to cope with Christmas.

All of the above – be kind to yourself, get help, talk about it, have realistic expectations.

I’d add the following thoughts:

Learn the power of “no” – trying to think things through before automatically agreeing to other peoples wishes can be challenging. If saying “no” outright is too difficult start with “I’II get back to you on that”, or “I’ll give it some thought” or even, “I always over commit myself at this time of the year and want to try to do it differently this time”.

Accept what you can’t change. News alert, most families aren’t entirely “functional”! You are not alone if you find their quirks or habits irritating. Unfortunately the holiday season tends to bring out the worst in people; those with addictions or mood problems may start with good intentions but deteriorate on the day. By understanding you are not responsible for this and you cannot change their behaviour means that you do not have to react automatically to their dysfunctions. If someone is looking for an argument, try agreeing with them rather than pointing out the flaws in their views – this is can be quite disarming and even amusing.

Get off the couch. Move your body, not just on the day but also in the weeks leading up to Christmas. A half hour walk can lift the spirits and change your mood.

Keep your blood sugar stable – whether its binging on chocolate or having a drink or two too many, whatever your poison these behaviours tend to make our blood sugar levels roller coaster with a rebound drop in our moods and energy. Try to have three square meals a day – with some fruit or vegetables plus a serve of protein (eggs, meat, fish) or slow release carbs (beans, seeds, nuts, wholegrains). Back off from the sugar and alcohol a notch and drink an extra couple of glasses of water a day to stay hydrated.

Start some new traditions: I adored Christmas as a child but also learned to love my alternative festivities when I moved to another part of the world. I have to admit, spending the 25th with other people’s families makes me more homesick for my own than having an “orphans Christmas”, a special day of fun with a partner or even a non-Christmas on my own eating what I like and sitting in the sun reading with no need to go anywhere or do anything (the last option might sound odd but if you ever crave a day of total freedom its worth embracing at least once in your life).

If someone in your family dies, it might help to change the ritual in some way – change the menu, time of day you eat the big feast, try a different location such as a picnic in the park, make a small shrine for them in the house with their photo, candle and a token gift.

Some years after my brother died I realised I missed the ritual of buying a present for him. What worked for me was finding a charity to donate the amount I’d spend on him for Christmas.

If all else fails, it is only one day of the year. Make a soft landing for yourself on the 26th or the next day you have control over to plan. Whether it is a trip to the beach or art gallery, a day in bed with a stack of good books, a catch up with a friend or connecting yourself to your stereo or MP3 player to listen to the music you love to flush out the saccharine diet of carols….

Naturopathic help

St John’s Wort: if you are not on prescribed medications such as the hormones, antidepressants, anti (organ) rejection drugs, this is a clinically proven and easy to obtain remedy to ease the blues.

If you can’t take St John’s wort – add chamomile tea to your daily fluid intake, or burn essential oils of chamomile, lavender or rose,

Take a good multivitamin with at least 50 mg of B6, every day. If caffeine is part of your diet, wait two hours after drinking to take your vitamins.

Add fish oil as a supplement. There is strong evidence that a lack of omega 3 fatty acids (abundant and easily absorbed from fish oil) contributes to depression.

Understanding depression at Christmastime

I came across this good insider’s view of the season. If you know someone prone to depression this may help you understand how this time of year is potentially worse for them. If this is how you feel, then you know you are not alone.
Decorate the house? You don't even know if you'll get laundry done so you'll have clean underwear tomorrow. Send out Christmas cards to 50 of your closest relatives and friends? What would you say in them - "Doing awful. My new pastime is staring at the ceiling. I hate myself. My clothes are falling off me because I don't eat anymore. I can't wait till the holidays are over. Don't bother to call. By the way, Happy Holidays!".

It's miserable to be depressed during the holidays. One reason is that you know that you really should be enjoying all the wonderful things that come along with them. As down as I sound on the season, I really do enjoy a lot of Christmas-sy things - decorating the tree and the house, giving and receiving presents, watching Rudolph and the Grinch and even sending out Christmas cards. But when I'm depressed, the fact that I can't enjoy these things makes me twice as miserable, and I berate myself for not partaking fully in the joys of the season.

From the ”Wings of Madness – Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide” (click the link to read the whole article).

Further links, thoughts and resources

Give a little: while some choose to volunteer to help serve Christmas lunch to the homeless or needy, most of the charities involved comment that they have too many volunteers for that one day and not enough help throughout the year.

My charity of choice is the Smith Family. It is one of the few non-religious charities (for that one third of the population who want to encourage change without dogma) in Australia and does effective, evidenced based, grass roots work at breaking the poverty cycle. One of its simplest programs, Learning For Life involve supporting children and young adults through their school years through hands on support, to money for school uniforms, shoes and books.

Support for charities such as this can be practical rather than financial through volunteering time for one off projects like the Christmas Appeal, to supervising learning clubs to help kids with their homework.

Lifeline – 24 hours, free telephone counselling service phone 13 11 44 (Australia wide).

Spend ten minutes listening to British author and journalist Sally Brampton talk about her depression, in this insightful BBC “Women’s Hour” interview.

The Australian Psychological Society can help you find a psychologist.

From past Health Trip shows

Healthy eating at Christmas

Healthy tips for surviving the Party Season

Need inexpensive present ideas at Christmas, check out Health Trip Stress Less Present Guide

Some ways to lift our spirits.

Further tips on coping with anxiety

Don't beat yourself up over feeling empty instead of full of the joy of the season. You're feeling empty because that's a part of the illness. It's not your fault, and you're not a bad person or a loser because of it. Even people who are not depressed are often having trouble getting in touch with the real meaning of the season.
”Wings of Madness – Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide”

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