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Making Spirits Brighter: Coping with Depression

Coping with Depression over the Holiday Season

While Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah holidays fill most of us with hopes of joyous reunions and celebrations, millions of people await the coming holiday season with a mixture of anticipation and dread. For, in addition to the happy anticipation, holidays can bring back memories of loved ones who have died, lost friendships, and earlier celebrations at happier times in our lives. When the family sits down to dinner together, many of us are keenly aware that someone we love is missing.

We are all susceptible to the holiday blues to some degree; however, for people struggling with depression, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time.

Why is depression likely to occur during the holidays?

The holiday season creates additional stress in our lives that can make it difficult to cope. For some of us, the stress is related to financial pressure. Others struggle to create a perfect family celebration that lives up to long-standing traditions, even in the face of changes that make this goal impossible to achieve. Families of divorced parents often experience a unique set of pressures and stresses relating to where children will be spending the holiday. And in many families there are certain members who are far away from home and cannot be with the family over the holidays.

Are there unique stressors for people with a history of depression?

Yes, people who struggle with depression are especially vulnerable around the holidays. It's not uncommon to hope that the holidays will make our problems disappear and when this doesn't happen, the disappointment can feel overwhelming. Extended families may come together to celebrate once or twice a year, and for some people these interactions are stark reminders of family dysfunction and rivalries. Loss of self-esteem and feelings of failure are exacerbated and sometimes the result is emotional crisis. Even the blending of family traditions from families newly united can cause anxiety and stress.

What can be done if I am (or someone in my family is) feeling especially sad or anxious about the upcoming holidays?

Talk about it. If you are feeling sad, talk about your fears and concerns with a supportive friend or family member. And sit down with your family ahead of time to try and set realistic expectations about holiday activities and gift giving. This will help to relieve the pressure and avoid the feeling that you are responsible for other people's happiness. Finally, if you are being treated for depression, you might want to talk to your therapist about increasing your visits during the holiday season.

What if I have to be apart from my loved ones over the holiday?

If you live far apart from someone you love, make a firm plan to talk over the phone on the holiday. Make plans to do a group activity if you are going to be alone on the holiday: do something that engages you in the act of giving, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen. And finally, do something for yourself on that day, whether it is a long walk in a beautiful setting or a luxurious bubble bath.

Consider celebrating without alcohol.

For people with alcohol addiction, the holidays can be especially difficult. Many families give and receive gifts of alcohol and in some families, there is toasting with alcohol and wine served with dinner. Families can help by replacing alcoholic beverages with sparking juices. If you are coping with alcohol addition, it is very important to be in touch with your sponsors and to be especially active in your recovery at this time of year. You don't have to go it alone.

What if I find myself in acute distress?

We all deserve to share in the blessings of this special time of year. Being conscious of the pitfalls of trying to create the perfect family celebration and anchoring our expectations in reality can help us. But if things get out of hand over the holidays, in spite of your good intentions, reach out for help.

If you are in acute distress, you can call the Crisis Line in Tompkins County at 272-1616 at Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service. Or you can speak to someone in the Behavioral Services Unit at Cayuga Medical Center by calling (607) 274-4304. Both phone lines are confidential and are answered 24 hours a day, every day, including holidays.

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