Newsletter #2 December 2000
Holiday Depression and Stress

Although the holidays are supposed to be a time full of joy, good cheer and optimistic hopes for a new year, many people experience seasonal "blues." The holiday season is a time full of parties and family gatherings, but for many people, it is also a time of self-evaluation, loneliness, reflection on past "failures" and anxiety about an uncertain future.

The holiday blues can be caused by many factors: increased stress and fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over commercialization and the inability to be with one's family. The increased demands of shopping, parties, family reunions and houseguests also contribute to these feelings of tension. Even people who do not become depressed can develop other stress reactions during the holidays such as headaches, excessive drinking, over-eating and difficulty sleeping.

Although many people become depressed during the holiday season, even more respond to the excessive stress and anxiety once the holidays have passed. This post-holiday let down after January 1 can be the result of emotional disappointment experienced during the preceding months as well as the physical reactions caused by excess fatigue and stress.

Below are several ways to identify potential sources of holiday depression that can help individuals cope with the seasonal "blues:

  • Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable by not trying to make the holiday the "best ever." Try to set realistic goals for yourself. Pace yourself. Organize your time. Make a list and prioritize the most important activities. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Do not spend too much time preparing for just one day (Christmas).
  • Remember that the holiday season does not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad, or lonely; there is room for these feelings to be present, even if you choose not to express them.
  • Let go of the past! Don't be disappointed if your holidays are not like they used to be. Life brings changes. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. You set yourself up for sadness if everything has to be just like the "good old days." Look toward the future.
  • Do something for someone else. It is an old remedy, but it can help. Try volunteering some time to help others.
  • Enjoy holiday activities that are free such as driving around to look at Christmas decorations. Go window shopping without buying anything.
  • Don't drink too much. Excessive drinking will only make you more depressed.
  • Don't be afraid to try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not done before.
  • Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you. Make new friends if you are alone during special times. Contact someone you have lost touch with.
  • Find time for yourself! Don't spend all your time providing activities for your family and friends.

Recent studies have shown that there are also environmental factors, which can contribute to feelings of depression around the holidays. Some people suffer from season affective disorder (SAD) which can result from fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter during the winter months. Researchers have found, however, that phototherapy, a treatment involving a few hours of exposure to intense light, is effective in relieving depressive symptoms in patients with SAD.

Other studies on the benefits of phototherapy found that exposure to early morning sunlight was effective in relieving seasonal depression. Recent findings, however, suggest that patients respond equally well to phototherapy whether it is scheduled in the early morning or early afternoon. This finding about the usefulness of midday light has practical applications for antidepressant treatment since it allows the use of phototherapy in the workplace as well as at home.

Reproduced with permission from the National Mental Health Association

Helpful Hints for Assertive Behavior: Saying "No" to
Unfair Requests and Demands

  1. Be sure where you stand first, i.e., whether you want to say yes or no. If not sure, say you need time to think it over and let the person know when you will have an answer.
  2. Ask for clarification if you don't fully understand what is requested of you.
  3. Be as brief as possible, i.e., give a legitimate reason for your refusal, but avoid long elaborate explanations and justifications. Such excuses may be used by the other person to argue you out of your "no."
  4. Actually use the word "no" when declining. "No" has more power and is less ambiguous than, "Well, I just don't think so..."
  5. Make sure your nonverbal gestures mirror your verbal messages. Shake your head when saying "no." Often people unknowingly nod their heads and smile when they are attempting to decline or refuse.
  6. Use the words "I won't" or "I've decided not to," rather than "I can't" or "I shouldn't." This emphasizes that you have made a choice.
  7. You may have to decline several times before the person "hears" you. It is not necessary to come up with a new explanation each time, just repeat your "no" and your original reason for declining.
  8. If the person persists even after you have repeated your "no" several times, use silence (easier on the phone), or change the topic of conversation. You also have a right to end the conversation.
  9. You may want to acknowledge any feelings another has about your refusal, "I know this will be a disappointment to you, but I won't be able to..." However, you don't need to say "I'm sorry" in most situations to apologize for your refusal. Saying "I'm sorry" tends to compromise your basic right to say "no."
  10. Avoid feeling guilty. It is not up to you to solve others' problems or make them happy.
  11. If you do not want to agree to the person's original request, but still desire to help her/him out, offer a compromise: "I will not be able to babysit the whole afternoon, but I can sit for two hours."
  12. You can change your mind and say "no" to a request you originally said "yes" to. All the above applies to your change of mind.

Copyright 1997 by Hampden-Sydney College. All rights reserved. Mail suggestions or comments to: Last modified on January 25, 1997

A Visualization for Relaxation

Spend a little time getting as comfortable as you can. Move around if necessary as you get into a very comfortable position. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Breathe out very slowly and easily. Take a second deep breath... Slowly breath out. As you do, feel yourself floating down. Concentrate on your breathing. Allow your breathing to become slow and rhythmic. Now, you see yourself walking along a warm, sunny beach at the edge of crystal clear water. Hear the roar of the waves. Feel the clean sand under your feet. Smell the clean salt air.

You can use the power of your imagination to create a feeling of relaxation whenever you want. If during the rest of your day, or for that matter, if at any time, you find yourself getting upset about something, remember the feeling of relaxation you have just enjoyed. Before you get upset, take a deep breath and as you breathe out, see yourself in whatever place you find relaxing. For a little while, let yourself enjoy all the calm feelings you have with your peaceful imagery. This will allow you to control situations rather than be controlled by them.

Now, count from one to three. As you take a deep breath, silently say each number. When you reach three, open your eyes. You will be relaxed and alert. When you open your eyes, you will find yourself back in the place where you started your imagery exercise. The world around you will seem slower and more calm, and you will be more relaxed and peaceful.

from E. Charlesworth & R. Nathan, Stress Management, 1984, Ballantine, pp. 145-146.

Mistaken Beliefs

Mistaken beliefs are at the root of much of the anxiety you experience. You talk yourself into much of your anxiety by anticipating the worst (what if thinking), putting yourself down (self critical thinking) and pushing yourself to meet unreasonable demands and expectations (perfectionistic thinking). Underlying these destructive patterns of self talk are some basic false assumptions about yourself and "the way life is."

Examples of mistaken beliefs and more positive choices:

-I am powerless. I am a victim of circumstances.

+I am responsible and in control of my life. +Circumstances are what they are but I can determine my attitude toward them.

-Life is a struggle. Something must be wrong if life seems too easy, pleasurable, or fun.

+Life is full and pleasurable.
+It's ok for me to relax and have fun.
+Life is an adventure- and I am learning to accept both the ups and downs.

-If I take a risk, I will fail. If I fail, others will reject me.

+It's ok for me to take risks.
+It's ok to fail-I can learn a lot from every mistake.
+It's ok for me to be a success.

-I'm unimportant. My feelings and needs are unimportant.

+I am a valuable and unique person.
+I deserve to have my feelings and needs taken care of as much as anyone else.

-I always should look good and act nice no matter how I feel.

+It's ok simply to be myself.

-If I worry enough, this problem should get better or go away.

+Worrying has no effect on solving problems; taking action does.

-I can't cope with difficult or scary situations.

+I can learn to handle any scary situation if I approach it slowly, in small enough steps.

-The outside world is dangerous. There is only safety in what is known and familiar.

+I can learn to become more comfortable with the world outside.
+I look forward to new opportunities for learning and growth that the outside world can offer.

Questions for Challenging Mistaken Beliefs

  • What is the evidence for this belief? Looking objectively at all of my life experience, what is the evidence that this is true?
  • Does this belief look at the whole picture? Does it take into account both positive and negative ramifications?
  • Does this belief promote my well-being and/or peace of mind?
  • Did I choose this belief on my own or did it develop out of my experience of growing up in my family?

Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 1996, pp. 209 & 214

from: The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, 1975