Colm Fitzpatrick explores ways to combat seasonal sadness
The Christmas holidays are a highlight in almost everybody’s calendars, but the season can be tinged with unexpected feelings of unhappiness and loneliness, with these spilling over or bubbling up in January.
The ‘Christmas blues’ or ‘post-holiday depression’ is a phenomenon that can affect anyone, and the prospect of it can create a mixture of negative feelings during the festive period. There are numerous triggers for this problem such as high expectations at Christmas time, fear of the future, and a confrontation of inner emotions that have been ignored throughout the year.
In many cases the Christmas blues cannot simply be reduced to a phase of fleeting emotions as these intense feelings can have a serious impact on mental health and well-being, even leading to suicide. One Australian study in Queensland which examined the frequency of suicides on holidays and special days of the year revealed that there was a
significant increase in suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
Explaining the cause of these experiences, Martina McNamara, accredited member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP), said: “There are lots of expectations at Christmas; people build it up in their heads. They imagine it to be the best Christmas and it doesn’t live up to that expectation.”
Martine added that these feelings of sadness can also be exacerbated by credit-card debt, alcohol addiction and loneliness.
Some people are affected for more subtle reasons such as guilt for Christmas over-indulgence or having to return to work, whereas others are triggered by holiday stress in general. The busyness of Christmas from buying presents to organising parties and cooking dinner is enough to lead to frustration and hopelessness.
These types of feelings may also be more prevalent around January, according to Martine, because the days are darker and colder. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter or seasonal depression, is a mood disorder which causes individuals to exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, usually in the winter months. The condition is recognised as a common disorder affecting people worldwide.
The symptoms may appear suddenly or develop gradually over time. Some indications of it may be lethargy, a disconnection from family and friends, and feelings of intense irritability. In serious circumstances it can lead to insomnia, nausea, emotional worthlessness and suicidal thoughts.
These types of effects are all warning signs that rest or intervention may be needed, such as a medical consultation or counselling.
Although Christmas depression is ubiquitous, those who are marginalised or vulnerable, such as the elderly, are more susceptible to it. Isolation is a causative factor for feelings of loneliness or agitation which can be difficult to fix without personal interaction with others.
Moreover, experiencing feelings of nostalgia from Christmases long past, those feeling the loss of a partner can find it difficult to cope with holidays that may look radically different from their usual fond memories.
Despite the pervasive effects it can have, the Christmas blues can be prevented or at least managed.
One simple way to avoid these negatives feelings requires a re-examination of dietary habits. During Christmas and the New Year holidays social drinking is commonplace with even those who don’t often drink making time for a glass of mulled wine or hot whiskey. Moderate alcohol consumption can add to the seasonal festivities, but it is important to remember that alcohol is a depressant, which in excessive amounts can cause low mood or aggressive behaviour, so whatever your Christmas was like, it’s a good idea to scale back now.
A correct balance of nutrition is also vital in ameliorating feelings of lethargy or sluggishness. If excessive consumption of mince pies and gingerbread over Christmas is replaced with healthy alternatives such as fruit and foods containing Omega-3 like fish, alongside keeping a watchful eye on portion sizes which tend to radically increase during Christmas, your mood will be boosted.
Being active through exercise can also combat gloom because physical activity releases endorphins which make us feel good. This may sound strenuous and demanding, evoking images of intense gyms work-outs, but exercises like walking in the park, cycling or jogging to work, and swimming are all beneficial ways to decrease anxiety and awaken your inner-self.
Also, if weight loss is one of your New Year’s resolutions, exercise is the most efficient way to lose a few pounds and garner some confidence and self-esteem.
Depressive episodes and negative feelings are also induced by isolation, but the Christmas period is the perfect opportunity to reconnect with family and companions, and it is worth trying to keep up renewed links in the New Year.
Spending time with others is an effective mood booster, especially face-to-face communication where conversation can flow, with stress absent from the forefront of the mind. As Christmas is a busy time of year, personal interaction may require pro-active engagement so picking up the phone to arrange a catch-up is a good idea. Alternatively, there are various social clubs and befriending services which provide a way to tackle Christmas isolation.
January can, of course, be a frugal month after the expense of Christmas, so some creativity can be needed in maintaining the links rekindled in the festive season, but having friends around for an evening or even weekend trips to galleries or walks in parks – the latter complete with mood-boosting exercise – can keep the fires burning.
The Christmas and post-Christmas blues can also arise from fear or worry about the absence of anything important in the future. By organising an event to look forward to such as a family day-out or a new project, the prospects of bleak future will be immediately reduced.
Another way to alleviate the seasonal stress, which requires little effort, is sorting out your financial situation. Christmas can be an expensive time of year, with costs building up from buying presents, food and outfits, all of which can cause worry. Facing your financial anxiety head on by setting a budget for the coming months should alleviate financial fears which will only increase if ignored.
Mental health and well-being during and after the festive season can be improved by selflessness: sharing what you can give. Taking some time to do volunteer work, for example, helping out in a soup kitchen, or committing to some small act of kindness everyday such as donating money to your favourite charity or checking in on an elderly neighbour can create a sense of purpose. It is a time where otherwise dull daily routines can be transformed into moments of meaning and connection.
For Martine, who is also a Lay Associate Member of the Spiritan Fathers, self-compassion and meditation are key to beating the Christmas blues.
“Self-compassion is a good thing. It is always good wishes going out rather than in. You should be alleviating suffering in yourself.
“If you breathe in for three seconds and exhale for six, it will calm you down and bring you back to reality,” explained Martine.
She added that low moods are created when people view the Christmas holidays as over, and so get worried about the humdrum of what is going to happen next in their life.
By practicing mindfulness through yoga and breathing techniques, the symptoms of your stress may reduce leaving you feeling physically and mentally content.
For the Christian at Christmas, prayer is a wonderful way to connect with yourself and God, allowing one to place their worries or fears into perspective.
Pope John Paul II once said, “Prayer gives us strength for great ideals… Prayer gives us light by which we see and judge from God’s perspective and from eternity. That is why you must not give up on praying!”
A strong spiritual life and steadfast trust in God may not mean the Christmas blues will disappear, but it can be a big help in overcoming them.
For more information about mental health and well-being, see https://www.irish-counselling.ie/