By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
Every year as the winter holidays draw near there is a rash of stories on the radio and television and in the newspapers about coping with the Holiday Blues. While it is admirable that the media finds this kind of story worthwhile, I’d like to correct some misconceptions about the holiday blues. First and foremost among the corrections is that the problem is highly over-rated.
The truth is that the holiday blues don’t start in November or even December. People hold off feeling miserable until January. The number of calls to psychologists dwindle to a trickle during the holiday months. Then the calls roar to an all time high in January for the entire year. Again in May there is another major increase in calls for help, sometimes equaling the calls in January. In August calls drop very low again, but not nearly to the low level of calls in the month of December.
Let’s take a look at this phenomenon so that you can be better prepared to handle your Blues when and if they come, or recognize when a loved one needs help. It’s really not hard to understand why we postpone depression during the holidays. We are distracted. There is a flurry of activity to keep us busy. The stores are very inviting with the decorations, music and multiple activities to distract us from normal life. There are concerts, plays, ball games, holiday specials on television, the latest holiday release in the movie theaters. The general atmosphere at most places of business is light. There is an understanding that the real work is postponed until January. There are parties and family get-togethers. Even if you have no friends or family and hate to shop, you can’t turn on the radio or drive down the street without noticing the holiday preparations. All of this serves to distract us from our daily concerns. We are swept along into a river of denial about what our true life situation is all about. We come to believe that the holiday spirit is healing and rejuvenating and that all of our problems will melt away.
At the very least, we put our problems on hold because we are just too darned busy to attend to them. Then January hits like it has in our area for the last two years. We are flooded with feelings and frozen with fear. The holidays have come and gone and we are no better off. The same painful family problems exist. Love interests did not magically materialize over the holidays. The winter ski vacation leaves you feeling frazzled and in debt. You are as disenchanted with your work situation as before the holidays, and no closer to a solution. I call this time of year, the Post-Holiday Let-Down. And it is one of the most difficult times of the year for most people, whether or not you actually have something to brood about. In January, you can no longer allow distractions to keep you from the reality of your life, love or work situation. There are no distractions to facilitate denial. Just two to three months of dark, cold, dreary days, with no significant holidays to break up the tedium.
Then with the first hint of Spring, people start feeling a little better. If you can hold on during the darkest days and nights of January and February, the lengthening days of March and April give us hope that Spring will restore us and bring about the changes that are needed in our lives. When May arrives with sunshine and buds on the trees, we hope that we’ll be well into our happy transformation.
Unfortunately, denial is not a useful tool when it comes to solving problems. Neither is praying for sunshine or a holiday. The truth is that May is the month during which the greatest number of suicide attempts are made. Again, our anticipation of problem resolution with the arrival of Spring is not justified. It is very painful to face the beginning of a new calendar year in January and a new growth year in the Spring, yet have no new agenda for one’s life.
Just as with eating well and getting exercise, in order to maintain your psychological health, a regular routine needs to be established. It’s hard not to be distracted by the holidays or a warm August vacation. Go ahead and enjoy these diversions. But recognize that they are not solutions. Be honest with yourself and do the hard work of revamping the lifestyle or personality that lead to your life/love/career dilemmas.
Do something each day to resolve these problems and to build a new plan of action for the days after the holidays. Some likely activities include reading and attending seminars on topics specific to your situation, meditation, increased levels of whole-person exercise such as yoga and tai chi, and joining a support group. Encourage family and friends to attend classes with you so that you have people with whom to discuss your thoughts and feelings. In this way you will realize that you are not the only one experiencing the Post-Holiday Let-Down. There are those few of you who actually do experience the holiday blues. Apparently you are not as easily distracted by the holiday hoopla. You may have the type of personality that is keenly aware of the world around you, which makes you prone to depression anyway. For example, there are plenty of things in the world to be depressed about. It’s just that most of us ignore the situation even during times other than the holidays. So if you are one of these people it is vital that you seek the support and professional guidance that exists in abundance around you. Just because everyone else is in denial during the holidays, doesn’t mean you aren’t reading your situation correctly. If you are depressed, tackle the problem immediately. Meditate, read, attend classes and support groups and seek the help of a psychologist.
Depression is no Humbug, but you will be better prepared for the Post-Holiday Let-Down if you understand when it actually happens. If you expect the Holiday Blues in December, you may be unprepared to care for yourself when those blues actually come in January.