Thursday, December 20, 2007

When the holidays are not so bright

It is easy to think that everybody is deliriously happy during the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year. After all, there is plenty of cheery holiday music blaring at every turn. People are bustling about buying gifts and making cookies. Many are talking about plans with family members and friends. There seems to be a sheen of glittery anticipation on everything and everyone.

Except that for many of us, the holidays are a time of sadness, loneliness, and pain. The National Institute of Mental Heath reports that depression is a reality in the lives of 20 million Americans each year. The Institute gives the following red flags which may indicate depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
  • Increasing irritability, impatience, and/or short-temper

Depression is a serious problem that can be helped. Healthcare providers can be a first step in finding much-needed relief. For more information, check out the link to the NIMH to the right.

Some folks do not suffer from long-term depression but find that seasonal blues are common. Sometimes this can be SAD (seasonal affective disorder) which commonly is related to the increasing darkness of the winter months. Experts have an impressive toolbox of options for treating SAD, including light therapy, altering eating patterns, and even medicines. But my favorite is visiting a warm sunny beach during the winter months. Okay, so they don't specify a beach but it sounds good to me.

Others may find that the holidays themselves seem particularly difficult, perhaps related to the feeling that "everyone but me is deliriously happy at this time of year." Thus, I return to where I started. Mental Health America discusses the following reasons for what they call Holiday Depression and Stress. (See the link at the right.)

stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over-commercialization, financial constraints, the inability to be with one’s family and friends, and [t]he demands of shopping, parties, family reunions and house guests.

As if those weren't enough, many of us experience a let down after the holiday celebrations.

Some people are more prone to the holiday blues and blahs, including those who have experienced major life transitions recently (like relationship break-ups or divorce or other losses, geographic separation from loved ones, or changes in work or family situation).

So what can we do? Some researchers, including Ulrich Schimmack from the University of Toronto, argue that we each have a stable "set point" of happiness... that most of us will have some ups and downs but will return to that set point eventually. This would be good if I am a generally happy person with a pretty high happiness point but dismal news if I am a natural Scrooge. This set point is not set in stone, however, as Ed Deiner at the University of Illinois and his colleagues note that certain critical life events can alter our tendency ( for example, losing a loved one or a job). Other experts such as Sonja Lyubomirsky (University of California) have evidence that people can positively influence their own levels of happiness by purposefully focusing on the good things in their lives, helping others, and simply expressing gratitude.

Here are a few concrete steps to help control holiday depression.

  • Reach out by formally volunteering or informally giving of your time, energy, or resources to others. When people give, they truly receive benefits to their own wellbeing.
  • Don't focus on the past but envision a happy future. Ruminating (going over and over the same thoughts) has been linked to depression. Find a way to interrupt yourself when you start reliving regrets- get busy with something constructive.
  • Don't attempt to excessively numb yourself with alcohol, other substances, eating, or over-busyness. Find a way to allow some sad or other negative feelings to come out (for example, talk to someone about them). Don't ignore but acknowledge them and then move on.

As for me, I’m working on an argument to myself that holiday sanity requires heading to the beach to soak up some happiness along with some vitamin D…

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The power of steam

Not all that glitters is gold, right? That was one of my grandmother's little nuggets of wisdom... she was famous for those, I have to say. Or maybe it was infamous. The fact that I remember it is probably a testimony to her genius or at least to her power of repetition.

I invested in some of those new microwavable steaming bags. It IS an investment... they are a little pricey. It was one of decisions I make occasionally in an effort to make the evening meal less traumatic at my house. Researcher Reed Larson's work has demonstrated that the emotional pit of most women's day is the time surrounding the evening meal. (I suspect he may have peered into my soul.) So, I had high hopes that the bags might provide a glimmer of hope.

My expectations were high, but we give them a thumbs up. We cooked our fresh broccoli in about 3 1/2 minutes, added seasonings to the bag, poured out the crucifers, and tossed the bag. You can also cook frozen vegetables in these miracle bags. On the downsides, the bags are a little small (we eat a lot of veggies). and we had to lower the suggested cooking time (otherwise, soggy broccoli would have resulted).

At the end of the meal, we all agreed that the bags are a worthwhile investment at least on those days when we are hurried. It is on those days when we might normally be tempted to forget any vegetable matter at our table. Hopefully, this tool will help reduce that mealtime stress at our house.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My (not so) perfect little life

In spite of my best intentions, I had to stop myself in the middle of a flurry of activities this weekend. Multi-tasking at its worst, I'm afraid. I was filling out holiday cards, absent-mindedly petting the cat with my foot, talking to my mother on my cell phone, and keeping one eye on a lasagna in the oven. All at the same time. Meanwhile, I am certain that Mom knew my mind was in a million places because she kept repeating herself. Finally, she asked me to call later when I was not so busy.

And when will that be, I wondered, as I begin to beat myself up for my various failures, from being a bad cat-owner, to a sad excuse for a daughter, to probably a wretched cook, and so on.

This state of affairs is not intentional. I do not plan on spreading myself so thin that, even in my own estimation, I am unable to do anything well. It seems to be my personal default, though... what happens when I am not vigilant. It seems to get worse when I plan too many things in a block of time, set very high standards for myself, then heap on self-criticism when things don't go as I planned. Am I alone here?

Apparently not. Professionals, such as Dr. Kenneth Rice at the University of Florida, tell us that perfectionism is common and very difficult to change. And, importantly, it is linked to depression when it travels with high levels of self-criticism. Perfectionism can be thought of as a tendency to set a high bar for success and then view efforts that do not measure up to that as unacceptable. The real problem happens when we blame ourselves (or others) each time something does meet our perfect expectations. Ouch.

If perfectionism is a pretty stable part of my personality, what can I change? To start, I can stop planning far too many things into a small block of time. In other words, one way I can stop setting myself up for constant failure in my own eyes by allowing myself to focus on fewer things at one time. Of course, it'd counter-productive to do fewer things but then hold myself accountable for perfection even in those, so maybe I should also wish for a big lump of realistic standards in my Christmas stocking.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Holiday Harmony?

Holiday Harmony: Just a Dream of Sugar Plums, Dancing in My Head?

Crackling fires. Mouth-watering smells. Warm hugs. Beautiful decorations. Sounds like the holidays, doesn't it?

It may be less warm and fuzzy, but many of us also experience another reality around the holidays. Pressure. Expenses. Time-crunches. Over-eating.

Effective stress management is a gift we can all give ourselves at this busy time of year. Sure, it doesn't come free, but it is one gift that will not disappoint. Where to begin...?

Take a deep breathe and find a few quiet minutes to invest in a little planning. What are your most basic goals for the holiday season? These should be realistic- this means that the "picture-perfect holiday," like we see in magazines, is a myth that adds to the pressure and stress we experience. Take a minute to figure out what would make the holiday season meaningful for you. Then prioritize those things, getting to others if time and energy allow. Here are a few of my goals and my plan for prioritizing them.

I want to spend some extra quality time with those I love. We plan to have one evening during the week and all day Sunday for "family time." This is the plan throughout the year, but we find ourselves slipping away from it, especially when there are so many demands this time of year. We have made a short list of things we want to do (send cards, bake cookies, sing carols, watch our favorite seasonal movie) and will focus on one each Sunday during the six or so weeks surrounding the winter holidays. We will not allow ourselves to cram in 5-6 activities each day, but will stick to our plan as closely as possible.

I want to volunteer some time helping those in need with my young daughter. We will donate a couple of hours one Saturday afternoon in December to sorting clothing and donated items at a local shelter. Of course, it is only a small offering, but in a season of taking, it will help my daughter focus on this example of giving to others that we will repeat occasionally throughout the coming year.

I want to de-emphasize the materialism of the holidays and focus on the true spirit of the season. We have agreed, including our children, to ban "gift wish lists" this season. We still plan to give each other gifts, but these will stem from the caring and thoughtfulness of the giver and not the unfettered greed of the receiver. This sounds harsh, I know. Each of us must figure out a strategy for reaching our own goals, but we want to experiment with a different model than the one that has left us rather empty in the past.

Your list likely will be different and your strategies may be quite different, too. But this two-part process can set the stage for holiday harmony.

  • Plan a few realistic goals that fit your needs and situation
  • Strategize about specific steps to prioritize and reach those goals.

Enjoy the holidays and above all else, may you and yours be well.