Anxiety, Depression, and the Holidays

The title of this article is pretty self-explanatory. Holidays are times when we celebrate something. Could be religious, could be personal, could be communal in some manner, but the bottom line is that a holiday is a day in which something happy is being commemorated in some way, very often with practical manifestations including food, drink, partying of some type, and social camaraderie.

All of the things I mentioned in the last paragraph, to a “healthy” person are great -they are all things that can make a person feel good in various ways both physically and mentally/emotionally, and overall provide a sense of well-being, security, happiness, and of course celebration. To those of us though, who do not have the good fortune of being in a mentally great place at the moment however, the holidays can quite literally be a nightmare. Being forced to watch other people be happy and celebrate, while inside we are feeling anxious/depressed, just exacerbates these conditions and makes a person feel even more acutely all the things that contribute to their symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In addition, aside from simply not being able to participate in festivities in a way that makes you feel happy, if you currently have painful Mental Health, believe it or not “holidays” can even be worse. Specifically, you may feel forced to pretend you are happy so as to avoid not fitting in, being looked at strangely or with pity, or even being asked what’s wrong? (which is the absolute last thing most people with depression and anxiety want to be asked by someone who is obviously experiencing none of those symptoms at the moment.)

So even just based on these simple reasons, the holidays are a difficult time for people with anxiety and or depression of any significance.

Then there are the unique and complicating factors. One person may be most negatively affected by having to spend time with their family and that can exacerbate anxiety and depression in all sorts of ways.

Another person may have no family at all, and the concept of being alone on the holidays is the one that for them is the hardest, causing their symptoms to worsen.

Or a person can simply feel left out of the positive vibes they feel around them, and this itself, on a very basic level, can easily worsen symptoms.

Is there anything that can be done about any of these items? Obviously for someone suffering from depression and or anxiety, avoiding any situation that triggers their symptoms and or make them worse is important.

So unless you absolutely have to, don’t attend a holiday party that’s pretty much guaranteed to make you feel worse.

Don’t spend more time than you need to among people who are celebrating in whatever fashion that might take, as that is pretty much guaranteed to bring you down further.

Do try to be in neutral environments that allow you to forget to whatever degree possible that the holiday is going on (if this is feasible and will enable you to remove yourself from situations that can trigger you to feel worse). Even though you may wish that you could be celebrating as well, if it’s not something that’s possible this year, the fact is you’re better off avoiding the situation as much as possible because of the overall negative effects it will have on your life and mental health.

One thing I tell pretty much every single one of my patients at some point, usually very early on in therapy, is that it’s crucial to visualize two buckets; one of the things you can control and one of things you can’t. “The holidays” , very specifically fits into the category of things you cannot control. They happen and there’s nothing you can do to make them disappear.

In terms of things you can control, there certainly are possibilities, and the important thing is to choose the ones that apply to you most directly.

For example, if you have the ability to simply be somewhere else where they are not celebrated, or in some other manner alter your surroundings so you are not being inundated by the celebrations going on that bring you down, that’s great and you would be well-served taking advantage of these opportunities.

Other examples of things you can control is where and with whom you spend your time.  Whether you go to events that have the potential to bring down your mental health further, and, assuming that you are using a psychotherapy or cognitive modification program to improve your anxiety and depression, as they say, keep your eye on the ball so that you make sure not to fall backwards in any of the Psychotherapy goals on which you are currently working.

I try to emphasize this concept of making sure to not fall back, very strongly, especially around holiday time. Specifically, with my
patients, whatever we are currently working on, I try to make it even more concrete than usual during the holiday. This way the person I am
treating is able to take this period of time to focus especially hard on their therapy exercises, monitoring them, implementing any adjustments that we make during the course of their treatment program, and generally filling their minds with therapeutic material that is in the long run making them better. THIS LEAVES LESS ROOM FOR THE NEGATIVITY OF THE HOLIDAY RELATED ISSUES TO CREEP IN.

Again, as anyone who has ever been my patient knows, a concept I try to utilize constantly is encouraging you to recognize what thoughts are currently occupying the real estate that is your mind. An analogy my patients all know is that of a TV cable wire. The wire goes into the TV and that wire contains tens if not hundreds or thousands of channels. But the fact is that only ONE of them can be on the screen at one specific time.

The reason this analogy is relevant is because our minds work the same way. We can’t kick thoughts out of our brain. This never works, we’re just not wired that way. What we CAN do, is fill our mind screen (using the TV analogy) with the channel that we want to be watching, as opposed to the negative material our mind may automatically tune to if we do not take active control of what we are focusing on.

To summarize, the holidays can be difficult for people with anxiety, depression, and any other mental or emotional difficulty. The best thing we can do is utilize some of the techniques I mentioned above to keep ourselves as healthy as possible until they pass, and by doing so hopefully minimize the level of negativity and or damage they can cause or set you back in terms of your personal growth program.

And of course, the hope always is that as you make improvements and get back to a healthier state of mind, that at some point you will not necessarily view the holidays as a negative time of year to gird yourself against and make sure does not impede your progress, rather, actually be able to ENJOY with the other “normal” people to whatever degree possible.  Naturally, your chances of improving your mental health go up dramatically if you participate in a Therapy Program
designed to identify and decrease the negative effect of specific problematic areas of your thoughts and functioning.

“Dr. Winder was very effective in helping me deal with an extremely stressful time in my life. The thinking exercises he taught me improved my ability to cope and allowed me to feel more hopeful.”

– Steven L.

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