It is widely believed that rates of depression increase around this time of year. There are a few reasons for this, including having fewer hours of sunlight, as well as the pressure many people feel to be happy and festive because it is the holiday season. Department stores start decorating for Christmas before Halloween has even come, holiday songs remind us to be thankful for what we have, and movies and Christmas specials can make us feel like everyone in the world is happy for the holidays except us. If you are not full of celebratory glee from November to January, it can feel like you are the only one, and this can cause depression. The mistaken notion that everyone else has a happier family life, more festive holidays, or more money to spend on presents can cause some people to feel sad for this “upward comparison”—presuming that everyone else is in a better place.
For some people, a particular year may be difficult and this can’t necessarily be pushed aside in favor of decking the halls and singing the carols. For others, it may be because loved ones are not around, either deceased, or living a distance away, making it difficult or impossible to get together for the holidays. There is no need to force yourself to be happy during the holidays, but there are ways to make this time easier if you are feeling the strain of holiday pressure.
If you live in a different city than your family and loved ones, modern technology makes it easier than ever to stay connected, even if you can’t carve the turkey together. Many people use Skype and other programs to have video chats on the computer and this can make the miles seem much shorter. Likewise, online sites such as Facebook and Shutterfly can be used to share photos and experiences no matter where people live. Although it may not be the same as being together in the same room, it is certainly better than writing letters and waiting for them to arrive. The instantaneous nature of the Internet allows us to see photos and communicate immediately, which can help us feel more connected. Free long distance on most cell phone plans doesn’t hurt either, as holiday calls need not feel rushed for fear of running up a large bill.
[inset side=right]It is impossible to put all our worries and challenges aside just because the calendar says we should. [/inset]It is often hardest to travel to see family during Thanksgiving, where the shorter time span of the holiday or vacation time may make it hard to travel. People who have no family to visit at all may be hesitant to make plans with friends or do something besides going the traditional route, and then feel “gypped” that they did not have the holiday they remembered or hoped for. During the early years of the AIDS crisis we witnessed, particularly in New York City and other urban areas with a large gay community, the coming together of people with no blood relation in order to provide rides to doctors, meals, support, and even holiday celebrations. I often comment that we should ALL take a page from this book—that even if our families live elsewhere or are deceased, we can still spend holidays with people we care about. During those years many “friends” turned into “family” by virtue of doing the things that family often does. We can do the same thing when roasting a turkey or ringing in the new year. We can invite friends if we can’t invite family. I have a standing invitation at a friend’s for Christmas, along with other “non-relations.” His wife cooks up a storm, it’s fun bringing gifts and baked goods for his kids, there are often the same faces there each year, and since having lost my own parents and the holidays changing by necessity anyway, I have the freedom to enjoy the day with friends while still finding some time to see my couple of family members that live nearby, perhaps on Christmas Eve or another time during the holiday week.
Another lesson to be learned is that we can have a great holiday by giving to others and not just stuffing ourselves with delicious food and eating too much dessert. Many people choose to spend some time on holidays helping at soup kitchens or food pantries, volunteering at a nursing home, or otherwise helping people. To see someone who has nowhere to go and no money for food can do a lot in helping us feel less sorry for ourselves. Perhaps we have family in another state, but maybe an elderly woman in a nursing home has no family left at all and would have no visitors for a holiday. I know I would find it hard to stay at my own pity party if I saw others who were less fortunate than I.
Finally, it is important to remember that no one has an ideal holiday season all the time, perhaps even ever. If you are feeling a bit down because you are not in a cheerful mood, don’t beat yourself up over it. It is impossible to put all our worries and challenges aside just because the calendar says we should. It is more the expectation that we should be happy and carefree during the holidays that causes distress, not the mere experience of perhaps missing family or feeling frazzled. No one’s family is perfect, and for some the holidays may bring up past conflicts; it may be stressful to spend so much time together, or financial strain may interfere with gift-giving. It’s easy to think everyone else is having a Normal Rockwell holiday, but depression peaks at this time because most of us are not having a Rockwell holiday. Carve out time for yourself during the holiday season, don’t feel compelled to do everything that you are expected to, but accept that certain obligations may have to be met and make the best of it.
I find that the end of the year is a good time for reflection and a good time to take inventory, look both inward and outward, and rejuvenate with creative pursuits. (I bake a lot of Christmas cookies!) It need not be a time for struggle or dwelling on what we don’t have, but can instead be a time to make plans for the coming year (not necessarily resolutions, which are often doomed to fail), think about changes one would like to make, as well as areas of success that can continue in to the following year. If we stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and simply take the time to enjoy the season, assess where we are, and eat a few cookies, these more reasonable expectations can make us feel a lot better in the long run.
[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD., practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.