Ideally, the holiday season should be a time for good cheer. But for many, it is also a time for loneliness, sadness, anxiety, depression, and family conflict. Frequently people feel a profound sense of relief once the holidays are over. It’s a bit ironic that we should look forward to the end of this season, when it could be a time for celebration, thanksgiving, and family reunion. Here are eight things you can do to make this a better holiday season for you and those around you:
1. De-commercialize your Holidays
For many families, the “real” meaning of the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc…) gets buried in hi-tech presents, credit card debt, shopping at malls, football games and parties with lots of unhealthy food.
Many years ago my wife and I read an article by environmentalist Bill McKibben called The $100 Christmas. The theme of the article was to de-commercialize the holidays by taking the emphasis off of buying lots of gifts and redirecting energy towards family, spending time with friends and rediscovering the meaning of the holidays. McKibben suggested spending no more than $100 on gifts. So we started making apple sauce and wreaths from wild grapevines. We spent more time walking on quiet, snowy roads and less time navigating crowded malls. I learned to play a few Christmas Carols on the piano and we sang them while being warmed by the fire in our wood stove. My wife baked cookies sweetened with Vermont maple syrup. We continued this approach for the next few holiday seasons, making slight adaptations each year. Each Christmas Day we walked around the woods and left bird seed for the birds. The money we saved on gifts was given to charity and we didn’t have any horrifying credit card statements to review in January (what a terrible way to start the new year).
Now that we have two daughters, we have been tugged back in the direction of more shopping and rushing around. But those years of simple holidays left their mark and we still make sure there’s time for holiday concerts, sledding and piano playing. So try rethinking your holidays this year. Throw out some of your old traditions, if they are no longer working for you, and start some new ones that give more meaning and spirit to your celebration.
2. Keep Your Sugar Intake Low
Don’t underestimate the role of two essential holiday villains when it comes to depression, fatigue and irritability – alcohol and sugar. Both are drugs and wreak havoc with your blood sugar system, according to Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D., author of Potatoes Not Prozac. You might get a quick “lift” from some Christmas cookies with green icing. But it may not be long before you find yourself craving a cup of coffee or a piece of pie just to help you feel a bit more alert. Whatever goes up must come down – and that’s particularly true of your blood sugar. And as your blood sugar levels crash so does your energy level and your spirits.
Psychiatrist William Philpott, M.D. tells of a woman who was hospitalized because she was depressed and suicidal. He did a six-hour glucose tolerance test for hypoglycemia. “One hour after giving her glucose, I checked on her. Her blood sugar was high – 180 – and her mood had drastically changed to euphoria. Two hours later, her blood sugar had dropped to 40, and her mood had dropped right down with it. There she was in the depths of depression again.” If you struggle with depression and fatigue during the holidays, this is the time to just say no to holiday treats and champagne refills. Substitute healthy treats and try drinks like sparkling apple cider or egg nog instead of liquor.
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3. Reflect on your Good Fortune
For many years I have used the time around Thanksgiving as a way of reflecting on my life, particularly my good fortune. Each year I conduct a 30 day self-reflection program that establishes a daily exercise in self-reflection for the entire month of November. One of the exercises involves making a list of 50 things about my life for which I am most grateful. This process helps me to notice how the world is supporting me so I don’t just take these things for granted and inspires me to give something back in return.
Essentially, these practices are tied to the Japanese art of self-reflection known as Naikan. This is a great time to learn more about Naikan, and a great place to start is ToDo Institute’s latest, Question Your Life. By reading the many firsthand accounts in the book detailing how Naikan changed people’s lives, you can jumpstart your own transformation!
4. Get outside and exercise
Exercise can play an important role in lifting your spirits and fighting off depression; in fact, it can be as effective as medication with less side effects.
As an extra bonus, you can get some natural sunlight while outside, which also helps to fight depression during winter months. If you can’t get outside much, find a gym or exercise class or do some yoga at home. The holidays can be a busy time for many of us. Make sure you continue to set aside some time to get your body and mind moving in a healthy direction.
5. Stop trying to control your family members
Many of us use the holidays as a time for reconnecting with our families including those family members who would be doing so much better if they would just take our advice about how to fix their lives.
Of course, they haven’t in the past, but this might just be the time they’re ready to listen to us and “see the light.” As an alternative, why not leave our teacher/counselor hat in the closet and just concentrate on being a loving son/sister/cousin/parent. We can play this role quite well without ever giving advice. And if someone else is trying to fix your life, well, just listen, thank them for their concern, and perhaps ask them if they’d like to go outside and help feed the birds.
6. Write a few personal holiday cards
If you send out a mass mailing of holiday cards with a message that is just as appropriate for your cousin as for the Duke of Edinburgh, consider a change of strategy. Forget efficiency and quantity and just write a handful of cards with a personal message and either a photo or a drawing by your five year old. If you don’t have a five year old, try using crayons and draw something yourself. The basic idea is to connect with people you want to connect with in a real and personal way.
I have several friends who write beautiful, lengthy messages in their cards. They have so much to say, they have to use the back of the card and write in a circular style to navigate around the copyright imprint. One of my friends nearly always includes a clipping of some article from a magazine she thinks I’ll like to read. She’s usually right. Fewer cards. Fewer stamps. Fewer dead trees. More heartfelt communication.
7. Do something for others – not just your own family
Some of my most memorable and rewarding holiday experiences occurred when I stepped outside of my own needs and problems and did something helpful for others. On several Thanksgivings I served meals at a homeless shelter. And I spent many Christmas mornings helping kids in a children’s hospital open gifts. Five years ago, I spent Christmas day with my about-to-be-adopted daughter in Vietnam. In retrospect, I got much more from these experiences than I gave. They were often the high point of my holidays and helped me get some perspective on my own difficulties and struggles. This holiday season will be challenging for lots of families who have been hit with layoffs and lower income. What could be more in line with the holiday spirit than to help a neighbor, or friend, or even a perfect stranger?
8. Focus on the present
Much of our emotional suffering occurs because our attention either jumps to the future (worries about what will happen) or drifts to the past (sadness about what already happened). If we can develop more skill at keeping our attention present we are more likely to become fully absorbed in what we are doing in the present moment. We may be helping to cook some squash for dinner, or playing with our niece in the snow. The present moment is our real life. Think about it – how much of our emotional suffering comes from worrying about the future or complaining about the past. Both are uncontrollable. If we fail to pay attention in the present, we are more likely to struggle with psychological problems while our real life passes us by.
Finally, don’t expect to feel happy, grateful and joyful throughout the holidays. It’s not natural. What is natural is the ebb and flow of feelings from one moment to the next. When those inevitable moments of depression, fatigue or anxiety present themselves, don’t let them paralyze you or throw you off course. Just take them along on your walk or let them accompany you while you bake some bread. They’ll move on, just as sure as winter will turn into spring.
Gregg Krech Author, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-reflection (2002)| Author, A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (2004, 2011)| Author, A Finger Pointing to the Moon (2000)| Editor, Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living (1993-Present)| Director, ToDo Institute (Vermont) (1992-Pr......