The photo on the front page of the Sunday New York Times tells the ultimate underside to holiday joy: a young woman, Sarah Walton, with her arms around the tombstone of her husband. The scene is in Arlington cemetery; the simple stone reads LTC James J. Walton and lists the parameters of his brief life, 1967-2008.
In households and hotel rooms everywhere, sadness and loss color the holidays gray. Most of the sadness is of a far lesser sort than that of the grieving widow, but just as real: relationships gone sour, bills that can’t be paid, health that can’t be restored — or the old, familiar pains of too many demands and too little time.
At my San Francisco church, a ‘Blue Christmas’ service was started four years ago by Associate Pastor Catherine Oliver, designed for those who struggle under the weight of everyone else’s festive spirits. Some of the faces she sees are familiar, but many belong to strangers seeking comfort or relief. This year, Oliver reports, attendance was not notably higher — “but there were more men.”
Acknowledging the stress and depression that so often accompany the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s Day season, the Mayo Clinic recently posted a few tips to help bring a little peace and joy into the season. They are summarized here, in categories found to be common.
First, Mayo Clinic recommends, recognize holiday triggers so you can disarm them before meltdown occurs. Most common among these are:
Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if you’re thrust together for several days. On the other hand, facing the holidays without a loved one can be tough and leave you feeling lonely and sad.
Finances. With the added expenses of gifts, travel, food and entertainment, the holidays can put a strain on your budget — and your peace of mind. Not to mention that overspending now can mean financial worries for months to come.
Physical demands. Even die-hard holiday enthusiasts may find that the extra shopping and socializing can leave them wiped out. Being exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. To top it off, burning the wick at both ends makes you more susceptible to colds and other unwelcome guests.
The good news is that even with the worst of causes, holiday blues can be lessened. Most effectively by following a few good recommendations such as these:
Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently 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 season.
Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. 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 videotapes.
Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all 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.
Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone’s name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
Plan ahead. 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.
Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. If it’s not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
Don’t abandon healthy habits. Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
None of the above can bring back a loved one, or make a new job appear. But perhaps they can help you through to a better and brighter New Year.