Overcoming the Post-Holiday Blues
Here we are, with the holidays over, the chilly long nights and short days of winter stretching somewhere in gray skies toward spring, and we feel wonderful – right? Actually, winter season – especially after the holidays – is a period when many of us begin to feel a little down, if not downright depressed. But just because it’s a common thing doesn’t mean that we must endure the inevitable. The first step toward a remedy for the winter blues is to develop some understanding of three influences that may work together for some of us to make a melancholy season.
The Post Holiday Influence
The first influence that may be behind the blues is the fact that the holidays are actually over. Who among us doesn’t have some fond memories of the holidays, yet secretly hope the new holiday season will be at least a little better than seasons past. Yes, the picture-postcard holiday is on most of our minds, but the reality is that Uncle Harry got a little tipsy, the kids got into the cornbread – and you know that for a fact because the little one threw up on the tablecloth. I have met few people who don’t face the holidays with both delight and dread – always hoping for the best and fearing the worst. And when they end, to the extent we were emotionally invested in the season, we must grieve the loss. Either the days were so wonderful, the company so delightful, that we miss them in the sudden silence – or we were so overwhelmed and stressed that the disappointment of a season coming up short leaves us wondering what happened. Actually, it’s frequently both, because life tends to deliver experiences as a mix of things (you may have noticed). Regardless, there always seems to be less magic delivered than expected.
Another aspect of the post holiday influence is the opportunity to breathe again. For many, the end of the holiday social occasions and festivities is like taking off the girdle (an analogy some ladies may appreciate). All of the little social tensions, let-downs, disappointments, stifled arguments and indignities that have been toughed-out through forced smiles and cheery greetings are released with a sigh of relief, but the emotional impact of their unresolved issues can settle back on us like a heavy snow.
The Biological Influence
The second influence behind the winter blues can be biological. Our metabolism changes with the shorter days of winter and we become more inclined toward lethargy and sleep. The decreased light results in less serotonin production, which can incline us toward moodiness and melancholy or worse. Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., reports that about 14% of Americans develop the winter blues, with attendant varying levels of depression, lack of motivation, including reduced energy and productivity. In more extreme cases, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) occurs. This condition can include major depression, lethargy, fatigue, headaches, problems sleeping and crying spells, as well as craving for sweets and starches. Sufferers can do much to reduce symptoms themselves, though professional help may be needed.
The Personal Inventory Influence (You know . . . the Resolutions)
The third influence behind the winter blues comes from our seasonal tendency to reflect on our lives – to take an internal inventory of where we stand in our life goals, our success in finding life meaning, and what changes we must make to meet these ends. We have a natural tendency to turn inward and be reflective during this time of year. But things can get ugly when we turn on ourselves. We become disappointed, even depressed, when we feel we are not achieving at our desired level, regardless of circumstances. Let’s face the fact that it is a more difficult world to live in – certainly more complex. We can be overly hard on ourselves when we fall short of our goals, when we are facing yet another year of (fill in the blank), when the inventory we take looks worse than the one last year. Maybe expectations have not been met because goals were set too high, then we became overstressed carrying those goals over and adding new ones. There is a better way to do this.
In fact, there is a better way to negotiate the winter blues – even prevent them – if we develop insight as to which of these influences are undermining our personal world and then take action to overcome them. Since these influences tend to occur together, to some degree, and tend to overlap, let’s explore some solutions we can bring to bear in taking care of ourselves: body, emotions, mind and spirit.
Toward Solutions – Taking Action to Avoid or Reduce Winter Blues
Taking Care of the Body
We can first take action to lessen the winter seasonal impact on our bodies. Since reduced light plays a significant part in this, we need to increase our lighting intensity and duration. Replace dimmer incandescent lighting with fluorescent; preferably tubes in the fuller spectrum range. Turn them on early, keeping your house well-lit and leave them on until bedtime. This is more important for those with SAD. A light box (available on the Internet) is recommended for more serious cases. Get outside when you can, preferably for at least a half hour a day. Read in a sunny window.
Eat a balanced diet – maintaining appropriate consumption of those sugars and starches. Exercising is established by research as a mild antidepressant. Get enough sleep to meet your needs – which may be more in winter. (Sleep in a sunny window.) Recreational drugs do not improve moods in the long haul. Alcohol and marijuana are central nervous system depressants which tend to increase depression. (Besides, who needs them? The things we are discussing here not only help overcome depression; they help us get high naturally!) Other neat things include joining an aerobics class, getting a massage, taking a bubble bath. Consider aromatherapy: add lavender and bergamot to your bath and keep them in your environment. Get and give hugs. Keep warm, especially after coming in from the cold: take the warm bath, drink your favorite hot drinks; keep throws draped nearby for easy access. Bring nature indoors by keeping potted plants or buying fresh flowers. Finally, never underestimate the potential of upbeat music in your environment.
Taking Care of the Emotional Life
There is much we can do for our emotional life to overcome winter blues. Proper care of our physical environment, as described above, can set the foundation. As part of our new year’s inventory, we can finally take a look at unresolved issues that came up over the holidays. Becoming honest and authentic with ourselves sets the stage for becoming authentic with others. What did we gain by holding back? By needing to be right? What did we need to say, that we didn’t – or what shouldn’t we have said that we did? It’s never too late to become real – especially with those we care about. Research indicates the special social activities of the holidays are especially missed when they end. We can extend those meaningful interactions and reach closure on unresolved issues by following through with authentic communication. Make post-holiday visits and phone calls; write thank you cards and letters. This puts a nice cap on the holiday season and sets a nice stage for the next.
Also, having a good relationship with ourselves in the New Year requires that we set realistic, attainable goals, realizing that unforeseen circumstances may change everything. We make ourselves suffer when we take responsibility for things outside our control, or avoid responsibility for consequences we create. Compassion begins when we accept ourselves and our lives, for better or worse, completely. With self-compassion, we can take responsibility for the changes we need to make.
Taking Care of the Mind
There are some very useful things we can do in the realm of mind to help overcome winter blues. In an earlier installment, we discussed the value of keeping a gratitude journal. There is never a better season than winter to start one. Begin by listing all the things you are grateful for. Add to the list and reread it daily. Keeping a positive frame of mind has a foundation in the things discussed earlier. By remembering how our mood states can drive the content of our thoughts, and vice versa, we can appreciate the importance of maintaining that delicate balance. As the shorter days place us into a reflective mode, we can follow the path of nature as it patiently waits out the winter sleep. This is a great time to engage the mind in the positive action of planning: the garden next spring; the vacation next summer; how to pay off the Christmas bills and credit cards (Yuk!); the holiday photo album. Reading can be a very fulfilling way to pass the quiet, introspective days of winter.
Taking Care of the Spirit
Finally, all of the things we discussed earlier will set a foundation for spiritually overcoming the influences of winter blues. Since the holidays themselves are essentially spiritual in nature, we can extend the meaning and practices of the season into the coming year. Volunteering is one of the most powerful forms of giving, because it palpably teaches us that giving is more pleasurable than receiving. If you went to a place of worship in holiday celebration, go back after the holiday. If it wasn’t fulfilling, find another place of worship that works for you. Spend time out in nature.
During this season of introspection, as the world is blanketed in winter, consider how you have answered the ultimate questions in your life. Have you answered them to your satisfaction? (Don’t let anybody scare the answers into you, if you want to live without depression.) If not, how will you answer them? This is important: How we answer our ultimate questions determines how we live our whole lives, because the spiritual component is the essence that gives life its meaning. Celebrate and rejoice in the ways that open your heart. Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Spend some of your reflective time writing in a journal, as well as reading to feed your spirit. Create an altar. Really, people in most of the world, in every religious tradition, keep some kind of altar, or sacred space, in their homes. This is usually a shelf or table set aside with personal spiritual symbols, pictures and icons, in an area dedicated to scripture reading, prayer, meditation and contemplation. This serves the spiritual impulse in human nature. It’s no small wonder that, in the west, we put away our Christmas trees and menorahs after the holidays, then have a sense that something is missing.
This is a season for contemplation, meditation and introspection. We should not resist the natural impulse to isolate and feed our spirit. It is a quiet time, if we allow, where peace may settle on our spirit as the winter snow settles on the land, preparing us and renewing us for the coming spring.
Granville Angell (copyright 01/2006)
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience. His private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services (www.transitions-counseling.com ), includes a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors.