NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 16, 2012

When the holidays cause sadness or anxiety

Health and Well-Being
Dr. Jim Manganiello

---- — This column echoes some of my earlier thoughts on “holiday syndrome” and the complicated emotions that can arise during holiday season. We should fasten our emotional seat belts before Thanksgiving and keep them fastened until after the New Year.

Our spirits can be lifted while sharing good times with our friends and families during the holidays. But the holidays can also bring us down. Give yourself a break if you feel out of sorts during this time of year. You are not alone. Thanksgiving and Christmas season bring stress, anxiety and depression to millions of people.

Holidays can trigger old wounds. If your wounds feel particularly deep or if you really get hit by a stress, anxiety and depression tsunami, then it might be a good idea to get help. Whatever you do, keep an attitude of friendship and generosity toward yourself. Say no to guilt and self-abuse.

OK, so what’s the big problem with this time of year?

A lot of different things. For example, while we feel happy about celebrating with our family and friends, we can also miss people we have loved and who are now no longer in our lives, whether because of death or because of the crush of life.

Also trouble between us and family members over unresolved wounds and conflicts can flare up with a fresh blood supply during November and December. We can love our parents and siblings but still not have an easy time spending time with them. And if our family life was especially bad, holiday season can remind us of just how bad.

During the holiday season, we can be especially sensitive to our past hurts and wounds, particularly if we haven’t grieved important personal losses. Ditto if we haven’t resolved family conflicts, or if we are having an “anniversary experience” because the conflicts are tied to this time of year.

Our grief over losses can include aspects of our own past identity that no longer have a comfortable place to exist in the present.

Our minds are more complicated than we realize. Without our knowing it, each of us has stored important experiences, many of them painful, outside of our awareness. This storage house is the “unconscious.” There is no past time in the unconscious. Everything is “now.” So that when experiences stored in the unconscious leak into our awareness — as they are prone to do at this time of year — they are happening now. And so we can feel sad, angry, agitated, lonely and frightened without even knowing why.

The holiday season can activate many emotional memories in us that are not a big problem during other times during the year. Some of us experience the same or similar “emotional weather” from Thanksgiving through New Year’s year after year.

We can feel low because our lives are more complicated and more difficult now. This can be very different from when we were children and the holidays seemed magical. Or sometimes our difficulties can be tied to painful childhood experiences of the holidays. If there was family strife, and if we were ignored or not particularly loved or attended to, then these feelings of past hurt and anger can leak into present consciousness.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t help that the end of December is a time when daylight hours are at their fewest. We now know that full and bright sunlight has a biochemical effect on the body that helps prevent and relieve the burden of depressed states of mind. Living in New England means we don’t get enough sunlight between October and April. Making sure you are getting enough vitamin D3 can help.

What can we do about the holiday season blues?

We can get a lot of relief if we can be patient with who we are. If we can add a little kindness and friendship toward ourselves , we can think of feeling down as a cue to do something. Many of us, for example, don’t put ourselves on our own shopping list. It is not a bad idea to buy something that we really like for “us.” Or to do something special for ourselves.

The fact is that family life can be rough. We don’t need to sugarcoat or idealize our family life. If we can accept that things didn’t go well for us at times, it can lighten our holiday burden. If you have family-based wounds, resolve to work on them. The past is not behind us, it’s in us.

Sometimes looking in the mirror and winking and smiling at ourselves while acknowledging that being alive is both a wonderful and difficult experience can go a long way.

And starting Dec. 22, it gets lighter and brighter every day.

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Dr. Jim Manganiello is a clinical psychologist and diplomate-level medical psychotherapist based in Groveland and West Boxford. He is also an author and teacher focusing on stress, personal growth, meditation and “inner fitness.” His book “Unshakable Certainty” is available on Amazon. Email him at drmanganiello@comcast.net or visit www.drjimmanganiello.com.