When I was younger, I could never understand why people talked about being depressed at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is such a joyful season, right? Why waste time dwelling on the negative and being sad and depressed?
You would be correct in assuming that I never have had to deal with depression. But I have known close relatives and friends who have. My only brother committed suicide in his 20s, which almost destroyed our parents. But knowing how painful it is to watch a loved one struggle with depression is very different from being personally weighed down by mental illness. It’s one thing to be sad or emotionally upset over the death of a loved one and another to feel constantly sad and hopeless.
People who suffer from depression have trouble sleeping and concentrating, and they experience sadness and overwhelming fatigue even on good days. On bad days, anxiety, agitation, severe sadness and panic attacks often end in thoughts of death, suicide and how to commit suicide. In their darkest hours, people who suffer from mental illness perceive death as their only escape.
Family and friends may not recognize the symptoms. Instead, what they see is irritability, loss of interest in activities, unusual changes in behavior to include acting on dangerous impulses and/or angry, violent aggressiveness. Such behavior may become worse during the holidays, but it’s always present in people who suffer from depression. Depression also may be a symptom of some behavioral health illnesses. No matter the cause or the season, these disorders are treatable, and professional help should be sought.
With age, I’ve become more aware of the life cycle through which many of us will travel — one spouse will outlive the other; elderly people lose their independence and have to rely on younger family members or nursing home staffers. It’s easy to understand how sad it would be to lose a companion and/or have to leave the home you’ve carefully created. Changes in lifestyle — loss of independence, separation from loved ones, financial limitations, failing eyesight or loss of hearing — would be enough to sadden or depress anyone.
And if you’re dwelling on such depressing thoughts or heartbreaking realities, it really does not matter whether you’re in the middle of a crowded room at a party or spending time with rarely-seen relatives. Under such circumstances, the holidays might seem devoid of meaning. So take time to scan your holiday gatherings and seek out those with the “holiday blues.”
Not all gifts are bought with money. Sometimes the best gift we can give others is to make them feel special. A hug, a kiss on the cheek and words that express how much they are loved and needed can be the most valuable gifts of all. And if you can give someone an opportunity to talk, share a tear or two and then find a way to turn those tears to smiles, you’ve helped them deal with their holiday blues. This type of seasonal depression is fixable and need not last more than a day or two.
For some tips to prevent holiday stress and depression, go to http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress.
When stress is at its peak, it’s hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past.
If someone close to you recently has died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday
The holidays don’t have to be perfect. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.
Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.
Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget.
Plan ahead and set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.