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If you had to construct a perfect storm for the emergence of depression, Christmas would be a good choice. The shorter daylight hours, the increased stress level, the financial burdens, the feelings of impending disappointment coupled with unrealistic expectations and obligations to family and coworkers. It’s a wonder we all don’t get the Xmas blues.
One of the best mechanisms we have to fight runaway emotions is logic. We all have the capacity to examine our own thinking with a critical eye. At Christmas, with the injection of faux “holiday spirit” and the attendant commercialism, it’s even more important to reframe the messages into their proper category. Doing this kind of analysis gets you past the initial emotional impact that can trigger feelings of withdrawal and sadness.
Practically, here’s how it works: You are exposed to the smiling, cheerful and warm message of happiness and giving – the usual Christmas stuff. But you don’t feel like that at all – the whole world seems to be full of joy while you remain miserable. Logic, however, tells you that the images presented are largely driven by commercial interests.
• How much of what I’m seeing has been inflated to get me in the mood to buy something? Will I fall for this trick?
• How much of what I see in other people is just them acting happy because they are supposed to?
• Are the memories I have of better Christmases really true, or are they just edited versions that left out all the things I notice in this Christmas?
• Why is there pressure now to deepen relationships? Aren’t relationships really built over the course of the rest of the year?
• What is it about my culture that demands I enjoy a holiday that more than half the people in the world do not celebrate?
• Are my expectations for gift giving and holiday get-togethers realistic or am I adopting some myth constructed by movie makers and pleasant story telling?
• Am I getting enough exercise? Am I eating and sleeping properly?
• How can I spend my time off doing things that I enjoy instead of trying to participate in the Christmas myth? What project could I be doing that would lift my spirits?
We all know where Christmas intrudes – the shopping centers, television, radio and family responsibilities. The trick is to choose where and when you want to expose yourself to this unending stream of holiday messages. The trick is to make willful choices instead of blindly following the herd. Do you want to put up decorations or a tree? Do you enjoy the Christmas card tradition? Placing boundaries gives a sense of control.
Setting boundaries also works with replaying memories and giving life to regrets. It also includes spending money. A thoughtful, inexpensive gift means much more than one which breaks your budget – don’t fall into the trap of trying to create “the best Christmas ever.” Social events also need boundaries. Limit the number of gatherings and the responsibilities that come with them. You don’t have to show up everywhere you are asked to do so.
Regrets come from replaying old experiences that you can’t do anything about. The opportunity has fled and the history has congealed – never to be altered. The remedy for a toxic past is to create new experiences which will overlay them.
Doing for others is a recipe for positive experiences. Like no other time of the year, Christmas offers many opportunities to get involved in charity work and give of your time. Some find the time off from work can be best filled by volunteering. This is a non-monetary way to give back and will help you feel thankful for what you do have, rather than what is missing.
Another source of positive experiences can be found in religious institutions. Getting involved in worship services, charity work and Christmas events will help shift your focus away from your own situation and give much needed help at the same time.
IF you periodically feel helpless and hopeless around Christmas, you have the advantage of knowing what’s on the horizon. You are not alone and professional mental health workers see many others with the same sense of sadness and despair around this time of year. Some suffer from seasonal affective disorder – a periodic bout of depression linked to shorter daylight hours in the winter. Others have dysthymia, a type of mood disorder that doesn’t rise to the level of major depression, and some have a full blown depressive disorder.
The critical message is that help is available.
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