Coping With Christmas

By Gretchen Gibbs
Hey, it’s the holidays! Time for Santa and mistletoe, bright lights and happy carols, family closeness and wonderful presents! Time for depression!

Because it’s never what it’s cracked up to be. Presents are never what you really wanted. Heaven knows family gatherings, and the family itself, are not what you hoped for either. There’s actually a group devoted to banning “The Little Drummer Boy,” they’ve heard that pa-rum-pum-pum-pum so many times. The new blow-up Christmas house decorations are tawdry, and those Santas at the mall are part of the whole materialistic scam.

Then there are the special stresses of the holidays. The memories of Christmas past, the pains and disappointments. The endless shopping in huge crowded malls, card-writing, cooking, eating, drinking, entertaining the imperfect families. Getting and spending, as Wordsworth put it. Not exactly a spiritual experience.

Is there anything to be done to avoid the holiday blues? Maybe not a heck of a lot. But as a psychologist, it’s my job to try to help. The following is not new or profound, but it doesn’t hurt to think about it again.

–Lower your expectations. Instead of comparing your family to the Waltons or the Cleavers, try thinking about one of those families on “The Wire.” Your parents didn’t push you into drug dealing or sell all your clothes for a fix, right? (If they did, I’m really sorry and none of this is probably going to help much.)

–Count your blessings. At Thanksgiving, The New York Times published a summary of recent research on gratitude. People who were asked to keep a gratitude journal just one day a week, listing five things they were grateful for, were happier, more optimistic, and had fewer physical problems as compared to people in a control group. Anecdotally, my friend who keeps a thankfulness journal is one of the most up-beat people I know, in spite of many sorrows in her life. Even when life is not going well, there are blessings. When I had cancer, I was so grateful for my friends.

–Simplify. I do hardly any shopping anymore, as my good friends and family agree that we don’t need anything. I donate some money to charities in their names. When you do need to buy presents, shop locally, avoid driving and crowds. Most people have given up sending cards, and you can probably get away with a holiday email. Simpler meals are usually healthier and appreciated by those who are worried about overeating. Try to avoid too much food and drink. Food doesn’t really meet those needs for holiday nurturance, and alcohol can be a risk in many ways.

–Practice self-care. Find some ways to meet those needs for nurturance by yourself. Self-soothe, as we say in the trade. A gift for yourself, if there’s something you need. If I’m shopping, I like to stop for a cup of coffee. Play your favorite music while you work. Read from a favorite author before you fall asleep at night. Don’t forget exercise and how good it makes you feel.

–Spend some time outdoors. Remember that Christmas replaced the ancient winter solstice celebration, the darkest time of the year, and many links have been found between darkness and depression. We need sunlight.

–Watch out for triggers. Both my father and mother died during Christmas vacations. For a long time the holiday was tinged with sadness for me. Now I recognize which memories are going to trigger sorrow and I reach for something different, a happy memory of the family together. I think even those of us from the most dysfunctional of families have at least one happy memory, the one Christmas when you received the present you wanted, or the one holiday when Dad didn’t get drunk, or the one when you all shoveled snow together and threw snowballs and laughed. Kind of like the Waltons. Happy holidays!


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