Beware the “holiday blues.” – includes related information on how to cope with holiday stress

In our society the Christmas season conjures up images of boundless warmth, gifts, friendship and family ties. Most people manage to have a satisfying time when families come together: rifts are generally glossed over and people enjoy the pleasures of eating, drinking and seeing distant relatives. But it can be a time of disappointment. Conflicts may surface because of unreal expectations and the wish to make everything “happen perfectly.” The tensions produced at such times, show up in the higher rates of people seeking psychiatric advice.

Explaining the “holiday blues”

The term “holiday blues syndrome” describes the downside of holidays and festive occasions. It refers to the emergence of incipient psychological problems such as depression that lurk beneath the surface. Holiday seasons intensify the contrast between fantasy and reality — the difference between the way we want or imagine our lives and families to be and the way they really are. According to psychiatrists, family gatherings often re-evoke childhood hostilities and disappointments. Some try to recapture the often idealized, tender loving care of their youth; others recall painful memories. Some revert to thinking and acting like children — being impatient, intolerant and demanding. Incompatible family members, normally kept apart, are briefly thrown together, creating inevitable stress. New Year’s Eve in particular can also trigger regrets about failed ambitions and spoiled relationships.

Psychological problems such as depression or anxiety, held down at other times, can surface during or soon after the holidays — a fact well documented by psychiatrists. Anyone prone to depression or who habitually feels low at year’s end might find a pre-holiday visit to the physician helpful.

Extra stress for harried homemakers

Christmas and other celebrations can prove extremely stressful to overworked homemakers trying to grant everyone’s wishes and make the occasion flawless. Struggling to make the house spotless, create gourmet delights, have the kids safely occupied and provide boundless pleasure all round, homemakers often experience a heavy energy drain and sense of inadequacy. Resentment at the extra burden and fears of failure can show up as over-compulsive behaviour (frantic attention to household chores) or as a desire to cop out and give up (run away, take a trip). The stress may also parade as physical ills such as headaches, raised blood pressure or aggravated ulcers.

Reducing stress during the holiday season

Since there is no universal level of tolerable stress, people must develop individual coping strategies. Bringing expectations in line with reality is a first step. Try to analyze the sources of stress, anticipate them and — if possible — plan to avoid them as best you can. Lessen the strain by eliminating all non-essential tasks and try to sort out realistic goals from impossible ones. Be prepared for letdowns. In particular, avoid the all-too-common trap of getting caught in other people k expectations. “Give up doing things that are beyond your capacities,” counsels one psychiatrist. “Above all, spare some time for yourself!”

There is no foolproof way to relieve stress but exercise can do wonders. Weather permitting, go for walks, skate or try outdoor games. However, don’t force the whole family or friends to do everything together. Getting away alone for a brief respite can calm the spirit. One mother of four says “never underestimate the value of locking yourself in the bathroom for a while.” A businessman with a deprived childhood suggests that “whatever your heart most desires you can best get by giving it away.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Signs of clinical depression

Depression typically has a diurnal variation being worst in the morning with a gradual mood lift as the day wears on. Depression is marked by sleep disturbances and appetite changes, a sense of failure, slowed thoughts, diminished energy, sluggish actions and, above all, pervasive sadness and exaggerated despondency. The hallmark of depression is anhedonia — loss of pleasure pervasive enough to colour all of life with inescapable gloom and feelings of worthlessness. The mood changes, although variable, are often described as `feeling strange,” or “no longer caring about anything or anyone,” or “being burdened by the cares of the world.” Often there are accompanying physical changes such as vague muscle aches, digestive upsets and headaches. People who think they may be suffering from depression should seek professional advice because there are many ways in which it can be alleviated with antidepressant medications and other methods.

RELATED ARTICLE: Tips for reducing holiday stress

* Step back, relax and try to appraise reality.

* Dissect and analyze the situation– manage time efficiently.

* Set priorities and give up impossible or needless goals.

* Don’t work yourself into the ground or try to do everything at once.

* Examine your holiday plans critically — are they realistic or impossible to achieve?

* Resist the temptation to do more than you can and don’t cater to the fantasies and expectations of others.

* Never condemn yourself for failing to achieve all goals.

* Make some time for relaxing each day.

* Try to be creative — perhaps make gifts at home to avoid overtaxing the purse.

* Don’t suffer in silence — if feeling stressed, share the burden and discuss problems with family friends or your physician.

* Bolster self-esteem by giving yourself small, frequent treats.

* Share the tasks and chores — get the kids involved.

* If inviting people to meals, ask guests to contribute a salad, pie or some other dish.

* Try not to prolong or exaggerate the “Santa Claus angle” bounteous gifts in excess!

* Do your best (within your capacities) to create a relaxed atmosphere. Forget the “extras” if they’re too much!

* Share the excitement of children: forget washing the floor and tell stories, play games and sing carols.

* If feeling pressured, see a movie, attend a concert, play or religious service, go for a walk or listen to a favourite tape or try other tension-relievers.

* If lonely, accept invitations without hesitation: look around for someone else to share a meal, take in a movie or help those who are needier than yourself (offer to chauffeur the disabled, help the elderly deliver presents, mind the children).

* Those alone at Christmas who can afford it might take a trip or cruise where they’ll meet others in the same situation.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Strategic Inc. Communications Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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