The holiday blues

  • By Abigail Mackey

    For the Observer-Reporter
December 13, 2012
Therapist Rachel Wilson shows a paper stop sign to a patient. Wilson uses the signs to help patients who are battling holiday anxiety to stop and think about the cause of their stress. - Photo courtesy of Rachel Wilson

Tinsel, shiny wrapping paper, snow and … stop signs?

Among the images that remind us of the approaching holidays, stop signs don’t often make the list. But for those who suffer from “holiday blues” – stress, depression and anxiety associated with the holiday season – stop signs can picket the path to a healthier holiday state of mind.

“Almost every year around this time, I do experience the blues,” said Lee, an Upper St. Clair resident and father of four who did not want his last name used. “It’s a busy time of year at work; the lights need hung outside; the Christmas tree needs to be cut down with the family; my wife needs help cooking, wrapping gifts, etc., and then there are all of the financial expenses.”

In a technique taught by his Venetia-based clinical social worker and therapist, Rachel Wilson, Lee carries around little paper stop signs to be used when holiday demands become overwhelming.

“I have learned to stop and ask myself, ‘What is going on? Do I have a problem? How do I feel about things?’” Lee said. “I combat my stress by stopping and thinking about things.”

Holiday blues, either independently or fueled by Seasonal Affective Disorder (a variant of depression that is resurrected each year by the shortened days of fall and winter), are triggered by any number of memories or expectations associated with the holiday season. In Wilson’s practice at Wilson Consulting financial burdens and the need for “things to be perfect” tend to be the top two stressors.

“If we’re a little bit stressed out that Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob are coming to dinner, well OK, because we’d like it to be perfect since we haven’t seen them in a year,” said Wilson. “That’s very different from someone who is just sitting on the floor crying, complaining of not being able to sleep, being irritable and feeling hopeless.”

Depending on an individual’s life experience and sensitivities, the emotionally charged holiday season can truly be an uphill battle toward dreams of sugarplums.

Research shows a 12 percent increase in death and illness during the holiday season. For survivors, memories of departed loved ones can overwhelm the holiday experience. To help combat these feelings of loss, Wilson suggests acknowledging these emotions and realizing they don’t have to be happy simply because it’s the holiday season.

Another holiday stressor is the desire or obligation to visit with a variety of relatives. One cause is the prevalence of divorce, which may lead to many mixed families with competing holiday traditions. Rather than feeling limited by a “modern family” situation, Wilson recommends adopting a realistic view.

“Adult children can’t always come to celebrate and traditions change,” said Wilson. “It’s OK to have Christmas not on Christmas Day. (Families) need to find new ways to celebrate together.”

When perfectionism seems to pressure every celebratory detail, remember to plan ahead. Choose to set aside specific days for shopping, baking, wrapping presents and menu planning. When an activity or get-together simply cannot fit into the schedule, protect your well-being and learn to say “no.”

“Saying yes when you should say no can lead people to feel resentful, overwhelmed and burdened,” said Wilson.

When typical blues-busters – exercise, eating well and healthy sleep habits - don’t seem to improve your mood, consider seeking professional help.

“I have learned that happy memories are made from the emotional fabric of our time together and not the details of the house being cleaned, or the lights hung just so, or the perfect gift or expensive meals,” said Lee. “I focus on the moment and enjoy that moment.”



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