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All Out of Holiday Cheer? 10 Tips for Beating Holiday Depression

All Out of Holiday Cheer? 10 Tips for Beating Holiday Depression

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    While the holiday season fills most people with joy, a significant number of people get down in the dumps around Christmastime. The reasons are plentiful: remembering lost loved ones, a bad experience during the holidays, loneliness, or just being overwhelmed can all dampen the Christmas spirit.

    It may surprise you to know that depression is actually less likely during the holidays than at other times during the year (see for example this research) but that hardly helps if you’re one of the unlucky ones. And while full-blown clinical depression drops off around this time of year, plenty of people are struck by “the holiday blues”, a general feeling of sadness or listlessness that is a specific reaction to the forced festiveness of the season.

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    If you find yourself feeling a little down this Christmas, try one or more of the following tips:

    1. Throw an “orphans” party.

    Being alone during the holidays can exacerbate existing feelings of depression and even cause them, so if you’re facing the prospect of a lonely Christmas, gather up your single friends and anyone you know whose family is far away and have a party. You’ll be doing yourself and them a favor.

    2. Get active.

    The winter months are a time of lowered physical activity, which in itself can make you feel lousy – especially combined with the attendant weight gain and lack of sunlight. Go sledding or skiing, take a hike (wilderness areas can be particularly beautiful this time of year), or just bundle up and take a long walk. The fresh air, sunlight, and physical activity will do you good.

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    3. Start a new tradition.

    One big reason people get wistful this time of year is that the traditions they’ve always practiced remind them of people who are gone – friends and relatives who have passed away, romantic partners that we’ve broken up with, or just family that’s far away. For really recent losses, you need to grieve properly, but for more distant losses, or plain old homesickness and nostalgia, there’s a time when it’s appropriate to abandon old traditions and replace them with new ones. Don’t forget those close to you, but break the association between the holiday and your loss.

    4. Have a salad.

    The fatty, sugary, and salty foods that make up a big part of traditional holiday eating can all make us feel sluggish and mopey, even if we have no particular reason to feel down. Add a few extra pounds and there’s another downer. While holiday treats may be unavoidable this time of year, try to eat them in moderation (we often eat when we’re depressed) and balance them with super-healthy choices that will make you feel good about yourself.

    5. Avoid the liquor.

    Just like holiday treats, alcohol is everywhere this time of year. Supermarkets are stacked high with holiday gift sets, parties feature egg nog and spiced wine, even the cookies have rum in them! Alas, alcohol is a depressant and if you’re already tending towards depression alcoholic beverages can speed up the downward spiral.  Try some juice, soda, or a “virgin” drink (a mixed drink with the alcohol left out) instead.

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    6. Find a “Blue Christmas” service near you.

    Many religious denominations are adding “Blue Christmas” services to their schedules, recognizing the special need to minister to those for whom Christmas is too much to bear. Many of these services are stripped of the cheerfulness of traditional services (as the pressure to be cheerful is often the last thing people grappling with depression need) and focus on aspects of the nativity story dealing with strength, triumph over adversity, and tests of faith. Many religious groups also offer counseling services, regardless of a person’s faith, which are generally free of religious pressure.

    7. Embrace imperfection.

    The holidays put a lot of pressure on us to do everything just right, whether we’re decorating our house, preparing a holiday dinner, or planning a night out. Try to lower your expectations to a realistic level – something more akin to every other day of the year. Take minor setbacks in stride, and leave the stress for another day.

    8. Get some light!

    Artificial light is no substitute for sunlight, but neither is sunlight at this time of year (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, of course). Christmas is, after all, one of the shortest days of the year. Brighten the rest of the season by installing a few full-spectrum lights (like these compact fluorescents that can replace any standard bulb) and opening your curtains during daylight hours. (And see #2 above.)

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    9. Volunteer.

    Depression often comes with a feeling of uselessness, so make yourself useful by volunteering. There are plenty of worthy causes that need a hand this time of year: shelters, toy drives, food pantries, animal shelters, and lots more. Think about staying on, too – you might just find your vocation!

    10. Practice personal productivity.

    Stress is a killer this time of year, and personal productivity is intended first and foremost to minimize stress. Make lists, delegate tasks, break big projects into small tasks, and take things one at a time. You can get through this!

    Do you have any tips for our readers about dealing with the holiday blues? Lend a helping hand in the comments!

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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