Beating the Christmas blues
Do you dread the Christmas family tradition? The obligations and expectations family places on you during the festive season? Maybe for you, like so many others, the biggest source of holiday stress is the family.
Hollywood stories create unrealistic expectations of the ideal family which may make people resentful or heighten the tension or conflicts between family members if their family's don't quite match up. "There's this vision and movie ideal that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be fun and stress-free," says Johannesburg-based psychologist Christo van der Westhuizen. "The reality is that family relationships are complicated and can be full of stress. But that's not a reason to ignore the holidays completely."
What about this time of year gets you down - really? For many of us there's a general sense of unease and anxiety but once you are able to cut through that vague sense of dread and identify specific problems, you are able to deal with them directly. Holiday stress can be triggered by a variety of things including unhappy memories, toxic relatives, or self-reflection and a disappointment at what has changed, or stayed the same.
If you associate the holidays with a bad time in your life - the loss of a loved one, a previous depression - this time of year will naturally bring those memories back. "For people who have recently lost a loved one or are spending their first Christmas alone, Christmas and family gatherings could be incredibly stressful", says van der Westhuizen.
The holiday season is a break from your normal routine and, as such, gives you time to think and reflect – sometimes to your detriment. "The holiday season often highlights what has changed in your life. If these changes are good ones – a great new job, a marriage, a new baby – they had a certain stress but a happy one. If however you've experienced traumatic change through the year like a divorce, or a death in the family these changes can unsettle you and your holiday gathering."
It can be hard to deal with these emotions and memories, particularly over the festive season, . "Keeping things bottled up is a very bad idea and can make matters so much worse", says van der Westhuizen. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group has counsellors on duty seven days a week from 8am to 8pm – Christmas, Boxing Day and New Years included. A call to 011 262 6396 or their toll-free suicide line 0800 12 13 14 , offers a friendly compassionate ear, support and advice during this time of year.
For some people, however, it is the fact that it seems nothing has changed that causes them stress. The monotonous sameness of family holiday gatherings can be depressing - the same faces, the same jokes, the same food, looking at the same skew tree can be a reminder of a stuck life. "My cousins and I always laugh and mouth the words of the jokes that my uncle tells at Christmas. They've been the same jokes since I was 5", says 28-year old Brian. "We laugh about it but inside I feel angry, numb. I wonder why I'm stuck in the same old rut and can't seem to escape it."
Let's face it, many of us simply don't like certain members of our family. The drunk uncle who makes lewd jokes, the tactless aunt who blithely asks whether you're still on your medication… The festive season can put you in the same room with relatives you avoid the rest of the year. And people struggling with depression may face stigma, too. "Some relatives just don't get it", says 42-year-old Depression sufferer Mpumi. "My family seriously still doesn't believe I'm depressed. They don't understand that this is a horrible time of year for me, I have too much time to think, reflect and wallow. They think I'm lazy. It can really hurt."
Balancing the demands of shopping, gift wrapping, family obligations, visitors and financial expenses may leave you feeling overwhelmed and stressed. You may develop stress responses like headaches, you may drink excessively or over-eat, or you may develop insomnia. SADAG warns that signs of depression or serious stress should not be written off as mere holiday blues in the hope that they'll disappear in January. "It can be dangerous to ignore depression symptoms for weeks or months," says SADAG's Counselling Manager Cassey Amoore. "If you're worried or not sure how to handle holiday depression , rather call us."
Experts say the festive season can make people feel out of control. We may feel at the mercy of our relatives, steamrolled by family tradition. But you do have a say and the key to surviving the holidays is to take some control instead of letting them control you.
"For as long as I remember we have had my grandmother's Christmas pudding. It's a family tradition – and it's inedible. We drown it in so much brandy and custard just to try swallow a bite!" says Jackie. "For years I have dreaded the moment of having to attempt to eat this stuff. Last year my husband asked me why I don't just say no or we don't bring our own… Something dropped… I realised that I don't have to be a slave to the Christmas pudding. And it's amazing, grandma was grateful that someone took some of the work off her shoulders – and so was the rest of the family!"
The holiday season can offer plenty of reasons to be stressed out and our tendency to compare our families with their idealised versions is a recipe for disaster. Most of us have less than perfect holiday gatherings. We have family tension, a drunk uncle, and dry turkey too. So if you are feeling a tad less than festive coming up to the holidays, don't try deny your feelings. There's nothing wrong or odd about feeling a bit down during the holidays. So this holiday season, don't unthinkingly do things the same way just because that's how you always do them. Make a choice, take a stand, and do something different even volunteer and allow a hospice worker, an old age home asst or hospital clerk time off with their family .
Finding the Holiday Spirit:
1. Lean on your support system. If you've been depressed, you need a network of close friends and family to turn to when things get tough. Take time to get together with your support team.
2. Ask for help and be specific. Ask your sister to help you cook, invite a friend along on shopping trips. People are usually happy to help if you tell them what you need.
3. Don't stay longer than you want. Going to a party doesn't obligate you to stay until the bitter end. Instead, just drop by for a few minutes, say hello, and explain you have other engagements. Knowing you have a plan to leave can really ease your anxiety.
4. Forget about the perfect gift. Don't stress about finding the absolute best gift ever.
5. Stick to a budget. The cost of holiday shopping mounts quickly and can make people feel out of control and anxious. Draw up a budget before you start shopping and stick to it.
6. Stay on schedule. As much as you possibly can, try to stick with your normal routine during the holidays. Don't stay too late at parties. Don't pull an all-nighter wrapping presents. Disrupting your schedule and losing out on sleep can make your mood deteriorate.
7. Don't rely on substances. Remember that alcohol is a depressant and abusing it will leave you feeling worse. Be particularly careful if you are taking medication.
8. If you take medication, don't miss doses. In the hustle of the holidays, it's easy to slack off and miss medication. Don't let that happen.