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Psychologists offer advice on dealing with holiday stress, depression

Holiday stress can take its toll. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON — It’s not the most wonderful time of the year for a lot of people. Pretty much everyone can feel stressed by all the extra cooking, celebrating and travel that happen around the holidays, but for some, it’s a time for feeling serious sadness.

Two local psychologists share their advice for dealing with the drear that can crop up at this time of year.

“It can be a hard time for people, and for a couple of reasons,” said Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist and chairman of the department of Human Services at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “It is a time for increased stress, positive and negative, for most people.”

The good news, Sheras said, is that despite the common perception, suicide numbers go down in November and December. But he does see an uptick in “people coming in to confront something that they maybe haven’t confronted in a while.”

One of the most important things you can do to help yourself, Sheras said, is manage your expectation of what the holiday season can be.

“There are people who just have very high expectations for the holidays, and sometimes they’re disappointed,” Sheras said.

It happens because the real holiday can’t keep up with the idealized holidays people think they remember from the past — sometimes not even the distant past.

“For most people, growing up, the holiday is a very joyous time, a family time. And they remember that. And so they compare it to how things are now — how are we doing compared to last year, or 10 years ago? Or what am I not able to do that I used to do?”

Janet R. Laubgross, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Fairfax, Virginia, agrees.

“Especially parents — we remember the holidays as kids, and all these things were done for us, and then we think ‘Oh, we have to do all this for our children,’ or we want it done for us, and that’s not gonna (sic) happen anymore. So reduce the expectations on yourself and on others.”

She advises sticking to your normal routine as closely as you can, especially regarding eating (“not everything is a treat”) and exercise, which really can help mood. And it’s also important to focus on what really matters — to yourself and your family.

“Ask everyone in the family what one thing they really want to do for the holidays, and do those things, and let a lot of other things go. People have these long, long lists … and then you realize that half of them, they don’t even care about.”

Laubgross adds that the atmosphere of shopping can really put a dent in your mood, but that there’s no reason to get caught up in it.

“Stay away from the stores,” she advised, saying that the ease of online shopping makes it easy. And as with other temptations of the season, be reasonable: Set a budget and stick to it.

Sheras said the emphasis on family during the holidays can be tough on people who don’t spend a lot of time with their relatives anymore.

“If you’re with your family, sometimes you’re stressed about being with your family; if you’re not with your family, sometimes you’re stressed about not being with them.”

If the family situation has you stressed, Sheras said, remember to manage your expectations there as well: “It’s not a good time to resolve that conflict with Uncle Harry; it’s a time to be together and enjoy each other.”

For a lot of people, this is the first holiday after a loved one’s death, or after a divorce, and that can make for a dreary time. But it can be a chance to really help yourself heal, depending on how you approach it, Sheras said.

“People in that situation need to deal with it in the same way they would deal with grief, which is to get some support, to acknowledge the feelings that you have, to use the positive people around you.

“Sometimes the holiday is a great time to be with people — to talk with people, to get support from your family. And talking about that person, remembering that person — that’s a natural part of completing the issues that you have dealing with your grief. So it can be an opportunity as well.”

If it’s the first holiday without your kids after a divorce, Laubgross says her advice still holds. Use the time you’re on your own to make plans with friends, or even do something as simple as a movie marathon for yourself. “Something so that you’re occupied and enjoying yourself as much as possible.” And in the time you have your kids, stick to the list of things they really want to do.

Planning something as simple as a movie marathon to take your mind off the fact that you’re away from your kids might seem a little lame, but Laubgross said to do it anyway.

“Even if you’re not gonna (sic) enjoy it as much because it’s a tough holiday season, it’s still better to do these things and enjoy it somewhat, and that’ll help you get out of your mood a little bit.”

Sheras said it’s important to differentiate between the regular “holiday blues” — something that just happens due to increased stress — and the condition of depression, which is year-round and can be exacerbated by holiday stress. Either way, stress doesn’t help.

“It’s pretty fair to say that high levels of stress make everything worse,” he said. “Depression, the disease, may not be caused by stress, but a lot of us have symptoms, like a lot of us have headaches sometimes, because of the circumstances around us.”

But if that kind of depression lingers for weeks after the holidays are over, Sheras said, it’s time to consult a professional. “Don’t worry about ‘catching’ depression because of a stressful holiday, but it may reveal some depression that you may have.”

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