Coping with the Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season
by Gregg Krech

Ideally, the holiday season is a time of good cheer.  But, as we all know, the holidays can also be a time of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, depression, and family conflict. Frequently people feel a profound sense of relief once the holidays are over. It’s ironic that we should look forward to the end of this season, given the potential it holds for celebration and connection. Here are some ways to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of the holiday season.

1. De-commercialize your holidays
For many families, the “real” meaning of the holiday season gets lost under the presents, buried under technological devices, online shopping, Fed Ex deliveries, shopping malls and credit card debt.  Many years ago Linda and I read an article by environmentalist Bill McKibben called The $100 Christmas. We took his suggestion to heart and for several years spent no more than $100 on gifts.  Instead of shopping, we started making gifts such as applesauce and wreaths from wild grapevines. We spent time walking on quiet, snowy roads and less time waiting on cashier lines.  Admittedly, this small and simple holiday plan is harder to maintain once children arrive on the scene, but we can still keep our emphasis on making gifts with our own hands, buying pre-loved items, giving away our own possessions, or providing gifts of service or experience.

2. Watch out for the blood sugar blues
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 before long you may find yourself craving a cup of coffee and a piece of pie to 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.

3. Reflect on your Good Fortune
Beginning with Thanksgiving, the end of the year is well-suited for self-reflection.  We recommend making a list of 50 things about your life for which you are most grateful.  This process helps you to notice how the world is supporting you, so that you don’t just take these things for granted.  If we don’t recognize our good fortune, in whatever form it takes, we won’t feel appreciation.  Our problems and challenges are going to grab our attention, but we need to deliberately notice our blessings and gifts.  The practice of Naikan offers a beautiful format for conducting self-reflection.

4. Get some fresh air and exercise
We love our comfort zones.  When we are warm and cozy inside, taking a walk in the cold world outside may not be all that appealing.  We may think that it’s inconvenient and a bit of a hassle to bundle up and get our bodies moving.  But in addition to being healthy for our bodies, exercise can help to lift your spirits and fight off depression.  In fact, it can be as effective as medication without the 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 cannot get out and walk on your own for any reason, please find some way to get exercise inside.  Our bodies were designed to move and they don’t function well if they are too sedentary.  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 heeded our advice in the past, but this might just be the time they’re ready to listen to us.  As an alternative, why not leave the 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 use your senses to shift the focus to the present moment.

6. Focus on the present
Staying present is one of the great secrets of a rich and satisfying life.  Much of our emotional suffering occurs because our attention either jumps to the future or drifts to the past.  If we can develop more skill at being in the moment, we may experience great relief from suffering and enhanced enjoyment of life.  The present moment is our real life.   Make a shift from thinking about your life to experiencing your life.  Wake up your senses so they can engage with this amazing world.  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.

And no matter how well we work with our circumstances, we may still feel waves of distress, fatigue, and depression.  It’s natural to feel the whole range of human emotion from time to time.  Just don’t let them derail you.   They’ll move on, just as sure as winter will turn into spring.

Gregg Krech will be leading the Living on Purpose program, beginning on Jan. 8, 2022.  Gregg is the author of five books about Japanese Psychology, including The Art of Taking Action.
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