For many of us, the holidays are a joyful time. But for some people, the expected happiness does not arrive. Lonely people - without family or friends - and those who grew up in dysfunctional families and have unpleasant memories of the holidays, simply can't achieve the ideal that many commercial images of the holidays portray. Obviously, having seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can only increase the suffering of people who are already predisposed to the holiday blues.
How can you tell whether you are suffering from SAD or the holiday blues?
These two conditions are really quite different in that people with SAD are suffering from a clinical depression that arises out of their special biology, whereas the holiday blues involve sadness that arises out of psychological conflicts. SAD typically lasts for several months, whereas the holiday blues are usually confined to the holiday season. Finally, people with SAD usually experience a variety of physical changes - for example, in eating, sleeping, energy level and daily functioning. People with the holiday blues don't typically show these changes.
Do the holiday blues really exist?
This may seem like a strange question, but research studies on this point are lacking. If I ever doubted the existence of the holiday blues, these doubts evaporated one evening when I was part of a panel discussion on this topic on a radio station geared towards young people. Many of the calls were heartbreaking as callers described being alone over the holidays, not having the kind of holidays they imagined other families to have, broken relationships and other sources of grief, experienced with the intensity that is perhaps unique to adolescence. Hearing these stories one after another was quite moving.
I was impressed in particular by one young caller who described the great pain and hardship in her life around the holidays. During a commercial break, one of my colleagues on the show acknowledged that the young lady in distress was in fact her daughter. She said sadly that she had tried to do whatever she could to help her through the holidays, apparently to no avail. I was left feeling of how complex and difficult the holiday blues can be - sometimes for the whole family.
There is no reason, of course, why people might not suffer from both SAD and the holiday blues. The many chores and activities that surround the holidays pose a burden to those suffering from SAD. In addition, since SAD often runs in families, the holiday season may trigger memories of a parent who was unable to cope at that time of year and might have done so by withdrawing, being mean-spirited or getting drunk.
5 Tips to avoid the holiday blues
1. Redefine the holidays as a joyful time for you, and pursue what is involves in making them so. Specifically, don't feel obligated to pursue holiday activities that are unpleasant or overwhelming simply because they have always been the thing to do. For example, if cooking for the whole family feels like too much, consider a potluck dinner or eating out.
2. If Christmas shopping and writing cards are more than you can handle, use the wonders of the Internet to help out. Shop and send greetings online and save time and effort and perhaps even a tree or two.
3. Don't bother fighting the crowds between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Evidence suggests that you may find better bargains later in the season.
4. If you are feeling lonely or disadvantaged, volunteering can be a good way to restore a sense of proportion to your situation - and help others at the same time. Counting one's blessings and helping those who are less fortunate are two time-honored ways of bringing happiness.
5. Finally, enjoy those aspects of the season and your own mind and body that cost absolutely nothing - walk outside on a bright winter day and enjoy the special beauty of nature in the winter; exercise and meditate. How wonderful to think that our own bodies and minds can provide us with remedies for the holiday blues - and so many other afflictions of the spirit.
Wishing you Light and Transcendence,
"Copyright Norman Rosenthal"
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