By Carole Van Holbeck, MSAN Mental Health and Wellness Advocate
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Homes are brightly decorated. There is a special feeling in the air. There are parties, family gatherings, good food, and traditions that should brighten anyone’s spirit.
And then it calls…the uninvited guest. The spoiler. The thing that turns all the bright colored lights to a dim shade of gray. Depression has arrived on your doorstep with a full suitcase and it doesn’t appear to be leaving anytime soon.
Depression during the holidays has been hanging around for a good part of my life. With the exception of 1999 (the year my mother died tragically) depression usually creeps into my Christmas through others. Growing up, my Dad was fondly called, “The Grinch.” He was never very happy during the holidays. When I was ten, my mother told me that my grandmother had passed away on Christmas Eve when I was young. There were five of us kids and always a ton of stuff from Santa under our tree. As a child I didn’t assign much meaning to Dad’s mood; but lately, I have reflected more on this. My Dad must have felt tremendous sadness over losing his beloved mother at Christmas. My mother tried to overcompensate for his sadness with lots of gifts which caused financial stress for our family, I’m sure. Add to the mix that we were a military family and on the move. Some Christmases were spent in hotels or in the cramped bedrooms of relatives because of a PCS. I imagine both of my parents felt overwhelmed. I know I feel that way sometimes. I’m sure you do, too.
Depression is something many of us will experience during the holiday season. It may be you, or perhaps a family member that falls into a funk. Knowing the causes of holiday depression can help you develop strategies to combat it.
Causes of holiday depression may include:
- Unrealistic expectations
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Financial stress
- Inability to be with loved ones or family
But hold on! You have some control over this uninvited guest. Try these strategies to show depression the door.
- Take care of yourself. Give yourself permission to step back from the present wrapping, baking, entertaining, and others’ expectations for a day or two. Do not feel guilty if you are feeling overwhelmed. Everyone has limits.
- Break out of the routine. Is going home every holiday an expectation? Does it wear you out? Then bravely do something different. Establish your own happy traditions and break out of the holiday rut. Don’t want to travel but see family? Invite them to come see you this holiday season. If you do go home, do not live in past memories. Be present.
- Do not be alone. Be with friends, volunteer, have a simple get together with neighbors, go to a church service, etc. Think outside the box. Some of my fondest holiday memories have come from impromptu moments. Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. Special moments are never scripted.
- Set personal limits. Learn to say, “No.” Don’t go to every party. Don’t feel compelled to send everyone you know a card. Let go of some of the control and involve others. Let your kids wrap gifts or involve your spouse in decorating the house.
- Scale back. Try simplifying the holidays. Make life manageable – whatever that looks like for you. Involve your family. You might be surprised to learn that things you do to perpetuate traditions are not all that important to everyone.
- Change your scenery. When sadness is involved in holiday depression, sometimes it is a good idea to take a break from things that remind you of loss. If you can afford it, take a trip to someplace new. If you can’t, try to spend the day with a friend or volunteer to serve a meal at a local shelter.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and amplifies depressive thought. Look for a festive alternative like hot apple cider or sparkling punch.
- Understand you do not own a family member’s depressive thoughts. It is truly hard to enjoy the holidays when a loved one is experiencing depression. Make the holiday manageable for you and your family. Invite your loved one to participate but try not to let his or her mood dictate the season. Find joy where you can.
And what if your uninvited guest refuses to leave after the holidays end? You or your loved one may need to seek the help of a physician or counselor who can help address the deeper underlying reasons for depression.
The key to recovering from depression is to start small and ask for help. You’ve got this!
Additional Resources for You:
11 Tips for Avoiding Holiday Depression Triggers
Navigating the Holidays When You Have Depression
Finding Help for Depression Through Military Support Programs http://www.militaryonesource.mil/health-and-wellness/prevention-care?content_id=282355
Carole Van Holbeck is a retired Air Force spouse, veteran (1978-1990), and former military dependent child. She is a mother of three sons, stepmother to three adult children, and grandmother to nine. A registered psychotherapist, she works as the Office Manager of Warrior Counseling & Consulting, a veteran mental health practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado started by her husband Ken in 2011. In this role, Carole engages with active duty military, veterans, and their families and understands current issues affecting this population.