Keep the Holiday Support Going

Image: The Baths at Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma_Tadema
The Baths at Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma_Tadema

You may be breathing a sigh of relief now that the holidays are over. There’s no question that there are many aspects of the holiday season that are tough on someone with depression. Things that tax your energy like shopping and cooking, parties and gatherings that require you to attempt a smile and engage in chit-chat, and of course, spending time with friends and family when you’d rather curl up in bed by yourself. All in all, an experience to be endured, and the worst part is that you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself!

And since you’ve heard that the holidays see the highest rate of suicide all year, you may also be confident that you’ve passed the danger zone. Well, not exactly. The thing is, we’re heading into the danger zone for suicides, not away from it. Contrary to popular belief, the holidays are not the time of the year when we see the most suicides. The beginning of the year, after all the festivities and for many people, in the dead of a dark, endless winter, can be the time when they lose hope.

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Simplify the Holidays to Preserve Your Sanity

My parents do a beautiful job with decorating for Christmas – they always have. Every year they get a real live tree. They have a couple of hundred of beautiful ornaments, as well as garlands and other assorted decorations. The tree is always put up at least two weeks before Christmas. Granted, they’re retired, but it was always like this even when they both were working.

In contrast, my husband and I broke down a couple of years ago and got a fake tree (I love the smell of evergreens, but it’s not enough to counter the expense of a live tree and the cleanup). I feel virtuous if we get the tree up a week before Christmas, and it’s been done on Christmas Eve on more than one occasion. It took me a long time to let go of my parents’ standards and to stop feeling guilty if I didn’t live up to them.

And I love Christmas. I have some great memories of Christmas, especially sensory memories. The smell of evergreen and mulled cider, the sound of Christmas music and the dazzling display on the tree. They were such an essential part of my childhood that I’m ensuring that my son has some of the same experiences. One year we had his best friend over to decorate Christmas cookies,  another year we built a gingerbread house, and when he was younger, I read him a different book about Christmas every year (A Christmas Carol, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, etc.).

But, oh my gosh. It can be stressful. Let’s face it, those childhood memories generally don’t involve spending every weekend in crowded shopping malls finding the perfect present, opening the credit card bill in January, cooking and cleaning for fifteen people and basically running around like a chicken with your head cut off. We’re always struggling to live up to an ideal that is literally impossible to match, unless we’re Martha Stewart. And really, at least half of the people who read her magazine are trying to emulate an ideal, but usually just don’t have the time, right?

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Depression and the Holidays Survival Guide

Let’s be honest – even if you’re not suffering from clinical depression or the holiday blues, the holidays can be stressful and often disappointing. We run ourselves ragged buying gifts, cooking, decorating and entertaining. Tempers flare as we’re thrown together with relatives whom we see infrequently, and don’t necessarily enjoy spending time with. Expectations are high that this season will be magical and perfect as we try to recapture the anticipation we felt as children waiting for Santa, or wait for a rush of emotion as we ponder the religious significance of Christmas and Chanukah. When those feelings don’t automatically well up, we’re disappointed. And, of course, we’re ready to take the nearest heavy object to the tv or computer when we see the same holiday commercial for the 487th time.

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Managing Depression During the Holidays

 

Image: Night Snow at Kambara by Utagawa Hiroshige
Night Snow at Kambara by Utagawa Hiroshige

Right before I got diagnosed with depression, I suffered through the most horrible Christmas ever. On the surface, everything was fine. I spent Christmas Day with my family as usual and a couple of days later my best friend got married in a lovely ceremony and reception. But the moment I was out of sight on my way home from my parents’ house, I burst out crying and cried for hours. And I was only able to endure an hour of the wedding reception before escaping. Thankfully, by the next holiday season my depression was controlled by antidepressants and I truly enjoyed it.

The holidays put a lot of demands on everyone, but are exponentially more difficult for someone with depression. Getting through the usual day to day can be painful, and the holidays add a lot of things to the mix like stress, emotional upheaval and unhealthy (although delicious) food and drink. However, there are a few steps you can take to boost your physical and mental health. Even if the steps don’t boost your mood, they should help to immunize you against some aspects of the holidays that can make your depression worse.

  • Prioritize sleep at the top of your list. Sleep is very important when you’re under stress, and sleep deprivation is not good for people with clinical depression.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Alcohol is a depressant, pure and simple. It might stave off the blues for an hour or so, but will not do you any favors. Its siren song promising temporary oblivion is very tempting, but it’s really the last thing you need.
  • I know this comes as a shocker, but foods high in fat and sugar and not much else are not good for you, and that’s mentally as well as physically. And this is coming from someone who won’t eat vegetables unless they have butter or sauce on them. For one thing, if you’re eating a lot of sugar and fat you’re not eating the good nutrition that can help stave off depression. Second, how irritable do you feel when that sugar high wears off? Not a good look for someone who is clinically depressed to begin with. I know that those holiday foods are yummy and everywhere you turn, but limiting yourself to just sampling those less than healthful foods is a good idea. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on appetizers and dessert. And remember, alcohol has a lot of sugar in it.
  • Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, can be quite rejuvenating, particularly in households where there’s a lot of activity or out-of-town company. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk or find a quiet place to enjoy for a bit. The sounds of silence will be music to your ears.
  • Getting together with family over the holidays can raise a lot of issues. If you’re in therapy, you might want to discuss with your therapist how you should defuse some potential problems. Be honest with family and friends about how you feel. Don’t be afraid of bringing everyone down with your mood; your family and friends may be worried about you, and you will all feel better if there’s an open line of communication.
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