For highly-sensitive folks and people predisposed to sadness, the holidays create a perfect storm for depression. There’s the added stress of holiday shopping, decorating, and parties — not to mention dealing with strained family relations; snowball and gingerbread cookies seem to stalk you; and a sense of forced merriment has a way of making you feel like a total loser if you change the radio station when “Jingle Bells” comes on. According to research posted by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of people said they felt stressed and fatigued during the holidays. Half said they felt irritable, and one-third felt sad. So even though you may feel like the only one struggling this time of year — especially after opening all of your holiday cards — you’re hardly alone.
Every year, I write one of these pieces on how to get through the holidays. And every year my advice changes, because I’m always in a different place where I need new tools.
Here’s this year’s list of ideas on how to maintain your sanity during the “most wonderful time of the year.”
1. Feel the Sadness
Every time I see the movie Inside Out, I’m reminded of the critical role of sadness in our lives despite our unease with this emotion. We may try like heck to eradicate it completely — or at least confine it to a small corner of our brain — but the truth is that our sadness is intimately connected to our joy, and vice versa. Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet:
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
December is packed full of joy, which, in my opinion, is why it’s also full of sadness. Along with everything that makes you smile — a beautiful train exhibit, the look of wonder on a child’s face sitting on Santa’s lap, an engagement ring, a puppy under the tree — there is the sense of grieving: of loved ones now gone, of past relationships, of lost dreams or what you wish could have been. For me, when I’m listening to a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria” or “O Holy Night” during the month of December, there’s a feeling of pure joy, but there is also sadness. This year, I’m trying to allow the sadness so I can better access the joy.
2. Know It Will Pass
In my 45 years of dealing with depression, I believe the most powerful piece of advice I’ve gotten is this: know that it will pass. It’s a temporary thing, depression, even in chronic cases. I panic less when I consider my emotional pain like labor pains: It gets very intense, followed by pockets of rest. Even in excruciating depressions, there are minutes — maybe hours — when I can relax in my skin. So I tell myself during a nail-biting episode that this pain isn’t solid. It has holes where I can breathe. Some waves of anxiety feel twice as tall as I am, engulfing me in their movement. But then there are moments of calm. Knowing that depression is temporary is especially consoling in December, because much of it is triggered by the season. The extra stress, pressure to be happy, and loneliness of the month will be gone shortly after the New Year’s sales are over and the ivy is put away.
3. Respond, Don’t React, to Stress
As I’ve said in prior columns, I believe depression is essentially a stress disease.Stress compromises almost every biological system in your body, wearing out important organs so that you are left vulnerable to mood disruptions. Constant cortisol flooding your bloodstream can make it nearly impossible to stay resilient to depressive episodes. Obviously, it’s best to reduce your stress as much as possible. Do you really need to send out 200 Christmas cards? Can you tell family members and friends that your gift this year is a nice dinner out?
I realize that if you have a pulse, you are going to have some stress if your life — especially during the holidays. So do your best to respond to it instead of reacting to it. Best-selling author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, describes this in his book Full Catastrophe Living:
As soon as you intentionally bring awareness to what is going on in a stressful situation, you have already changed that situation dramatically and opened up the field of potentially adaptive and creative possibilities just by virtue of not being unconscious and on automatic pilot anymore.
By applying mindfulness to stress — deep breathing, awareness, meditation, yoga, visualization — we can interrupt the damage that stress yields to our hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals, autonomic nervous system, and immune system.
4. Do Things That Make You Feel Good
In his book Unstuck, psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, gives the reader instructions on how to write out a “prescription for self-care” and how to design a self-healing package of things that will make you feel better: activities that don’t require anything but a little time and initiative. If you are a Sound of Music fan, this is the same thing as making a list of “your favorite things” and then doing them. My healing package includes things like Epsom salts baths, Bikram yoga, nature walks with my husband, playing with my puppies, swimming with friends, taking a nap, and going offline for a few days. During the holidays, it’s especially important to find the time to do those things that energize us and make us more emotionally resilient.
5. Watch the Sweets
I realize this was on my list last year and the year before, but loading up on sugarand white flour is one of the quickest ways to spiral downwards. Please believe me when I tell you that these twin powers can hijack your central nervous system and plant very painful thoughts into your brain that are not YOURS, especially if you are sensitive or intolerant to them like I am. The last two years at Thanksgiving (ever since I gave up gluten and sugar), I’ve tested the waters to see if I can handle a piece of pumpkin or apple pie with the rest of my family. And each year, days of tears and heartache have ensued afterward. So far I’m 0 for 2. I know my answer. The stuff is poison for me.
6. Know Your Triggers
We all have holiday triggers. For a single friend of mine, it’s all the Christmas cards: one happy family picture after another, and the letter that goes with it detailing Little Jimmy’s baseball career and Little Sally’s school project that was acknowledged by the pope and the president — together! Being the highly-sensitive person that I am, my trigger is the mall, of course. I’ve already had my seasonal meltdown in Bath & Body Works when an assertive sales “specialist” wanted to spray me with evergreen body mist, or something like that. Theoretically, if we can identify our triggers, we can design some strategies to lessen our suffering. I know better than to step foot in the mall between Halloween and New Year’s Day. That was my fault. For my friend who has a hard time tolerating all the family bliss memos as a lonely single, I recommend that she place them all aside into one basket to read or observe at a time after she’s out with married friends who complain about their husbands and kids, when she likes her single life a little more.
7. Go Deeper Into It
In her book The Giving Way to Happiness, philanthropy adviser Jenny Santi advises people who are burned out in their nonprofit careers to try to go deeper into the cause as a way of processing the frustration and reconnecting with their passion. This concept works for yoga, too. I can sometimes move through the discomfort of a position by going deeper into the pose — projecting my energy through my fingers and toes, and calming my breath. How do you “go deeper” into the holidays? You try to embrace the more spiritual message of the season. You think like a child, and get back to the sense of faith and hope that the holidays are about. I make a list of things to do that will help me with that: I read “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Clause” over and over again; I listen to Josh Groban’s “O Holy Night”; I attend Handel’sMessiah; I watch It’s a Wonderful Life; I visit holiday train exhibits with the kids; and if I can stay awake for it, I go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.