Life After the Holidays

The holidays are behind us and many are breathing a sigh of relief. While there is joy in this time of year, it is also a season notorious for heightened rates of depression, stress, and even suicide.

One reason seems to be that people have expectations of the season that are set too high, and when the holidays don’t meet those expectations, there is tremendous disappointment. Many people believe that the month of December must be great no matter what else is going on in their lives, and if it isn’t, there must be something wrong.

Why do we think that whatever is going on in our lives should magically resolve itself on Thanksgiving and remain bright and shiny through New Year’s Day? Sometimes life just doesn’t work that way. But we hope it will. There are many superstitions surrounding how we ring in the new year and what it means for the coming months. My grandmother advised against washing clothes on New Year’s Day because if you did laundry that day you would do laundry all year. So, does that mean that if I don’t run my washing machine on the first of the year I will have a year FREE FROM LAUNDRY?? Is that day so magical and mystical that I can actually take charge of the coming year by simply not doing laundry? Probably not, but it soothes us to think we have that kind of power over the future.

We all have problems, and while we might be able to put them aside to take time to appreciate the good things in life, they don’t disappear with the egg nog (well, OK, maybe they do, but they will be back in the morning, along with a killer headache). Conventional wisdom tells us that our problems are supposed to disappear the first time we hear "Frosty the Snowman" so that we can walk through life carefree for the next month. Ain’t gonna happen folks, not without serious medication. And if our holiday season doesn’t turn out to be that Norman Rockwell painting, the letdown can be enormous, leading to depression. We wouldn’t expect our problems to disappear in the month of October, so what’s so special about December?

It is that letdown that I believe causes the most depression, that feeling that "everyone else is happy, why aren’t I?" But the truth is that only some people are, indeed, very happy at this time of year, the rest are pretending to be. Perhaps their year has been wonderfully stress-free and they have much to be thankful for. Maybe they are able to see friends and family that they don’t see often enough and those get-togethers bring much joy. New babies in the family may bring about a change in holiday traditions and rejuvenate family relationships. Some people just genuinely like the holidays and feel good when they give gifts and share in the season. But the other side of that coin is that not everyone is happy when the holidays arrive, whether only this year or in general. One of my friends has never been able to get over the fact that his college and law school finals were given after Christmas so his holiday break was tainted with studying. This was 30 years ago, but like Pavlov’s dogs, he just can’t stop the feelings of nausea that hit him when he thinks of leaving the family dinner to go hit the books. Some people generally enjoy the holidays but a particular year has been difficult and so affects their celebrations, for example, if a family member is sick or there is financial strain. Unfortunately we are sent a message that it is not "OK" to feel down around the holidays, and this causes not only depressed feelings, but guilt as we question why we aren’t feeling festive "like everyone else."

I have done a bit of a survey, not scientific by any means, but just my own observation, which is that 2007 was particularly hard for a lot of people. This is probably just coincidence, but it sure affected holiday celebrations. A quick list off the top of my head, just in surveying myself and some friends, includes: serious financial hardship, two failed business ventures, one broken engagement, job layoffs, marital strain, a death in the family, friction with friends or family, a few out-of-control teenagers, estrangement from one’s child, dealing with loved ones addiction, and being 4000 miles from home. To expect to have a carefree holiday is a recipe for disaster, and disappointment and depression can set in when Christmas turns out to be mediocre.

So, what are we to do? For one thing we can have realistic expectations and accept the fact that perhaps the holidays won’t be perfect every year. Trying to make them so, when clearly we are preoccupied with life, only adds to the frustration and disappointment. Second, we can try to be practical about the coming year, use this time to reflect and make changes where we can, so that the months to come will be less stressful. If we take control where we can, we will feel less depressed because we will feel more an active participant in our own lives. For example, if you can’t enjoy the holidays as much because you have financial worries, make a plan for how to get out of the situation you are in. Where can you cut back so that you can get back on your feet? How long will it take to get out of debt? Can you find a new job? If you are dealing with illness, how can it be managed? Is it something that will get better? Have you done all you can in seeking treatment? Can you look forward to some relaxation and celebration when the crisis has passed?

We also have to remember that Christmas, Chanukah, New Year’s Eve, etc, are just days on the calendar, it is not required that we feel festive and plan big shindigs. The rest of the year is important too. If something precludes a celebration at this time of year, you can get together with loved ones at another time rather than force the festivities where there are none. And if all else fails and you really do need to lock yourself up and be miserable during the holidays, then let it happen. You can’t force felicity, so don’t try. If it gets so bad that you think you need help, then be sure to reach out, but if you just don’t feel like ringing in the new year wearing a silly hat and feigned optimism, then don’t force yourself. It may be the best thing you do. And you have my permission to do laundry on January 1st if you need to. I’m pretty sure my grandmother’s logic was flawed.

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About the Author: Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes