I love the holiday season. For me, it’s a time to decorate, celebrate, and reverberate all the good cheer. Images of Christmas icons playing in snowy winter lands, the festive look of holiday lights everywhere, sickly sweet pumpkin –flavored coffee drinks at my local Starbucks, and the nonstop (mostly awful) holiday tunes never fail to put me in a good mood.
I also appreciate that this time of year elicits our compassion for the less fortunate, and inspires our natural inclination to give. The holiday season encourages us to do something good for others, give someone a much-needed break, or just be kind for no reason.
Another reason I love the holiday season is that it emphasizes the need to spend quality time with the people we love. I’ve learned that the hours spent at a large table sharing opulent food, wine, and conversation, are what we can truly be grateful for in our lives. I have really come to cherish the festive and sentimental nature of holiday social rituals.
Still, some years I found myself silently and secretly struggling during this time, especially the years before I met my husband. For some, the holidays are a sad and lonely time – especially when going through difficult period. The end of the year can also be a poignant time for us when it comes to self-reflecting on what we have accomplished in the past year. If we believe we’re not where we should be – whether what we desired was a relationship, a better career position, or even 15 pounds thinner – our inner critic can be quite vocal at this time of year.
Like many, I was stunned and heartbroken when I heard of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, just following the sad news of Kate Spade also choosing to end her own life. These high-profile celebrity deaths give us further proof that people from all walks of life grapple with the darkness of depression, even people who would appear to have highly successful, interesting, and meaningful lives.
When we see someone we love going through depression, we want so much to find the words or the solution that can cure them, but the bitter truth about something as baffling as depression is that there are no guarantees that the war can be won. If anything positive can come from Bourdain’s and Spade’s suicides, it is the hope that the we can see mental illness as a disease in the true sense of the word – one that in our own mind and soul we can feel helpless against.
Here are some ways to create time and space to take care of your mental and emotional health during the holidays.
Be your own ultimate protector. If the holidays are a difficult time for you, don’t face them alone. Let your friends and family know that you need support and a little help to get through the holidays. Don’t always make plans that require spending money or drinking alcohol; instead, try window-shopping or helping a friend or neighbor decorate their place.
Create a new way to celebrate the holidays, maybe take a short overnight trip somewhere. Maybe instead of celebrating major days with a lot of people, just choose a few special friends. I’ve come to learn that most families are slightly dysfunctional and spending a lot of time with them during the holidays can trigger emotional baggage. Prepare yourself in advance for a possibly tense conversation by giving yourself an easy out.
You are under no obligation to put yourself in an uncomfortable place. You can acknowledge what the person has said and simply respond, “ I’ve heard you, but I think we should discuss this some other time.” Remember that when we take responsibility for our feelings, we also give our self the power to decide when we have reached our emotional capacity. Don’t be apologetic about looking after your own emotional well-being.
Make a list, check it twice (ha!). Jokes aside, make a list of important activities you are typically faced with during the holidays (shopping, travel, hosting, attending holiday events, and charity) and prioritize that list.
I tell myself that it is wise to make choices that result in the path of least resistance. In the case of this list, predict the trouble before it appears and be realistic about your expectations. Don’t accept the invitation that puts you in the same room with someone who broke your heart. Plan to make that night special some other way.
Set goals that you can reach without having to stress out later. Be creative in the way you gift, and see if you can offer a helpful service you can provide, like a ride to the airport, rather than a gift bought at a store. Keep a watch on your holiday budget – overspending can lead to depression when the holidays are over.
Don’t compare yourself with others. One of the cruelest things we can do to ourselves is compare ourselves with others. Our bird’s-eye view of the lives of others is inaccurate, especially if we gauge their happiness by what they post on their social media.
Be aware of how you feel when you go to these sites during the holidays, do you feel sad and depressed afterward? If so, limit your time on social media or just take a break altogether from the endless gathering of information of the lives of others. Its not surprising that there are now numerous studies showing that spending time on social media tends to make people feel more depressed or lonely.
Don’t compare with the past. If you find yourself stuck in memories of better holidays in the past, remember that its quite normal for us to want to linger on the good times. Don’t try to push the thoughts out of your head, instead ask yourself what it was about that time that you miss so much: is it in your control to have that again? If not, choose to accept the fact, and then ask yourself what new thing would give you some degree of similar satisfaction? Focus on that new thing, and take little steps towards creating the new. Allow yourself to truly believe that nothing stays the same, allow yourself to believe that the good days will come around again.
Take care of your physical body. Exercising regularly during the holidays is crucial because we’re simply under more stress and consuming extra calories. Start before the holidays begin, and commit to some form of it for about 30 minutes every day for a month. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work if we just do it once or twice a week, especially when we first start a routine. Naturally, the holidays are a time when both eating and drinking are done in excess. You can enjoy the decadence of the season, but if it makes you feel badly afterward, then it’s time to take pause. When we are depressed we can use both of these in excess to numb our sadness. The fallout is that a hangover and the binge-eating guilt can be emotionally difficult on us afterwards, and those feelings can often linger.
All we can do with depression is win one battle at a time, one day at a time with patience and compassion for our experience. Even if we are not suffering from depression, the holidays can be a stressful time. Identifying what our emotional triggers are and preparing to deal with them during this time can be helpful in getting through it.
Need to talk to someone? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day.