Surviving the Holiday Blues December 5, 2007

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Are you dreading the holidays with your family because the experience never lives up to your expectations? You are not alone - 19 million Americans suffer from some form of depression, many of them undiagnosed. The stress of the holiday season tends to bring out feelings that can remain hidden during other times of the year.

This can be a result of too many cultural expectations reinforced by prolonged exposure to your family and a break from our normal routines. Austin psychologist Richard D. Grant, PhD suggests some simple strategies that can help Central Texans cope.

Be Realistic

Not many family gatherings live up to the warm and fuzzy standards implied by TV specials that all have happy endings. Family tensions that arose as you grew up and old baggage that should have been abandoned long ago may come up again. Few real life problems are resolved during holiday visits. Try not to set expectations too high so that you can enjoy the good parts and let go of the bad.

"When people don't connect to each other emotionally, they often substitute things and ritual activities for connection. The less emotional the connection, the more intense the ritual or the bigger the gift. If you dread the productions of gift-giving frenzies, family ceremonies, huge meals or religious celebrations, try to speak about emotional connections frankly instead. This approach might not solve your problem this year, but over time, creating real connections as the basis for gifts and rituals will work," suggests Dr. Grant.

Set Differences Aside

No one benefits from family strife, so resolve this year to manage it differently. Consider your strategy in advance.

"Lots of us have at least one family member they can't stand to be around. A helpful strategy is to re-frame your reference to the person by looking for something good about them and commenting on it. (Nice dress, funny joke, good salad) Consider it your holiday gift to that person," adds Dr. Grant. "By choosing to feel positive about people we generally don't like, we develop positive expectations and let some of the negatives go."

"Focus on one positive quality of each relative and comment on it. Make this your holiday challenge and hobby."

Seek Support

"Once we've grown and left our parents' home, most of us develop a social support group of friends and co-workers. That support group, plus routines and activities help us get through the day.

"During the holidays, you may be subjected to people - often family members - you would not choose to spend a lot of time with. And everyone deserves a little time alone," says Dr. Grant. "Build in some time to contact your friends or co-workers by telephone or on the Internet. They may be experiencing similar problems."

Don't Abandon Healthy Habits

"Holiday food - especially high fat dishes, alcoholic beverages and some ethnic treats rank high on the list of stress-causers," says Dr. Grant. "This is especially true if you are trying to adopt new eating habits."

"However, it is important to remember that to many families, food is an expression of love. It's okay to stick to your own choices and skip the things you really don't like. A helpful strategy is to pick one dish you enjoy and rave about it. Through showing appreciation, you are doing what is necessary emotionally to acknowledge that you recognize and celebrate the meaning of the holiday."

He recommends including activities you enjoy during part of the day and timing them similarly to your non-holiday schedule. If you run in the morning, try to fit it in.

"You are sometimes under pressure to participate in someone else's holiday plans and to change your pace to match theirs. That is the time to remember who you are and what works for you," he continues.

Take Control

Seeing a movie, shopping in a mall or just an afternoon walk can help you achieve emotional distance from the holiday experience and improve your attitude. Build in time for yourself every day.

Also try to control how much time you spend in the company of your relatives.

"Spend the holiday with your family at their place so that you are the one who can leave gracefully if things get tense," advises Dr. Grant. "Generally family members appreciate your courtesy in coming to their place to celebrate. You can plan to leave early and announce it when you arrive or tactfully cut your visit short if you must. In any case, it gives you control of how long you want the visit to be."

Seton Shoal Creek Hospital

Mental Health Services

Seton Family of Hospitals

(512) 324-2000

If you or someone you know are experiencing symptoms, it's a good idea to consult a mental health professional. Seton Shoal Creek Hospital has inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for children, adolescents, adults and seniors. Referrals to Seton Shoal Creek hospital may be made by family, friends or other health professionals. The staff offers the following tips for helping to identify someone with problems.

Signs & Symptoms of Mental Distress in Adults

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Missed work or sudden poor performance
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Anger, rage or anxiety
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Persistent sad or empty mood
  • Decreased energy and constant fatigue
  • Thoughts or talk of self-harm or harm to others
  • Paranoia, hallucinations or delusions

Any one of the above signs may not be enough to indicate mental distress or the inability to regulate emotions, but should be enough to suggest there could be a problem.

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