The stores are aglow with twinkling lights and enticing merchandise. Wreathes and trees adorn the houses and buildings you pass, and holiday music is a background reminder that this is a very special, magical time of year.
But for some people, the weeks leading up to Christmas are the most painful of the year. Depression during the holidays is an all-too-common problem that turns the season into something to "get through" rather than a celebration to savor.
A 2008 poll on holiday stress conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that eight out of 10 Americans anticipated stress during the holiday season. This stress could trigger feelings of anxiety and sadness, or it could exacerbate an underlying depression.
There are many reasons people suffer from depression during the holidays. The excessive commercialization and pressure on buying and gift-giving can cause financial pressure and guilt. The media images of the "perfect" holiday season crammed full of activities and quality family time may be far from reality for some.
Memories of deceased loved ones or loneliness can trigger sadness and melancholy. And often the magical holiday season we anticipate fails to meet our expectations. We feel pressured and overwhelmed. Family members let us down. It's just not what we hoped for.
One of the unfortunate complications of holiday depression is an added layer of guilt and frustration that you can't enjoy the holidays like you should be able to -- like everyone else is doing. Not only do you feel bad, but you feel bad about feeling bad. You feel shame you aren't living up to the expectations of the season of joy.
If you are suffering from depression during this holiday season, here is a message of hope: You can turn your depression into a holiday gift. You can use this time when your depression is glaringly evident to you and those around you to create a better life for yourself in the New Year.
Here are some thoughts:
A great time for treatment
Instead of reinforcing the thought you "should" feel happy during the holidays, give yourself the gift of treatment for your depression. Acknowledge and accept how you are feeling, and don't try to shove it down or pretend it's not there. The best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones is to go to your doctor or psychologist to treat your depression. Talk therapy can help you release some of the stress and sadness and manage the demands of the season with professional support. There are many other treatment options for depression, but the longer it remains untreated, the worse it will get. Make this your No. 1 holiday priority.
Re-frame your expectations
A holiday depression will force you to refocus on what's really important -- your health, your relationships, and the simple pleasures of life. Turn off the TV to avoid the holiday commercials, and stay away of the malls as much as possible. Simplify your life and downsize your holiday plans. You'll find you feel less stressed, more capable of handling what is absolutely necessary, and less guilty about feeling depressed. And the true gift of re-framing is the impact it has on your life after the holidays are over. A simpler holiday season will reveal the value of a simpler life.
If loneliness and sadness over loss has triggered your seasonal depression, don't allow the depression to isolate you further. If ever there were ever a time to reach out and reconnect with old friends or to establish new ones, this is the time. Don't be shy about letting people know you're feeling blue and need to spend time with others. Most people understand, having experienced the same feelings themselves. The gift of friendship and compassion is invaluable. And perhaps you'll encounter someone else who is feeling the same and can benefit from your willingness to share.
Get outside and move
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can add to your holiday depression, as the days are shorter and your exposure to sunlight is less. Busyness and cold weather make it harder to get outside and exercise. But make this a daily priority during the season. Give yourself the gift of beginning a fitness program by going outside and taking a brief walk or run every day. Studies have shown that both exercise and exposure to sunlight decrease feelings of depression during the winter months.
Commit to a budget
If you're feeling stressed and overwhelmed by the expense of the holidays, step back and assess your finances. Define exactly how much you feel comfortable spending, and communicate that to your loved ones. Setting a budget and sticking to it is a mature and responsible decision. It's a decision that will make you feel better about yourself and will kick start a lifetime gift of financially sound choices. Small and thoughtful gifts that don't cost much (or that you make for no cost) are often the most memorable and meaningful. Free yourself from the obligation to spend.
Remember that in spite of your depression, you are a valuable and unique person. This depression doesn't define you, and it isn't a life sentence. Give yourself the gift of self-love and tender care. Treat yourself as you would a beloved child or friend. Be patient with yourself. Offer self-care in the way of rest, warm baths, a massage, or a comforting meal. Treat yourself kindly and with the same compassion you'd offer someone else suffering with depression.
Remember that depression is a treatable illness. If you've been suffering with sadness or anxiety for more than two weeks, seek help from a professional. Give yourself the gift of mental health and wholeness this holiday season so you can begin 2014 with a light heart and bright expectations.