High-flying holiday hopes can crash into depression

December 22, 1992|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

If it's the season to be jolly, why does it come with all that emotional, financial and physical stress, right smack in the middle of the longest, darkest nights of the year?

Sometimes it seems as though the harder you try to preserve the magic and hope of the holiday season, the more likely you are to be disappointed, and the more likely to get caught up in the dark and dismal side of the holiday doldrums.

Fortunately, there are only a few more days of it.

Trying to fulfill your idea of what the perfect holiday should be, you may find yourself kicking the closet door and muttering, "Bah, humbug!"

Overindulgence in food and drink often puts physical health in jeopardy.

Nonstop shopping for the perfect gift to please each and every one on the Christmas or Hanukkah list is likely to tax financial resources.

And depression -- whether seasonal or situational -- often results.

Most people at some time or another suffer from depression in reaction to some great loss or other traumatic event, such as the death of a child, parent or spouse, divorce or a natural disaster. During the holidays, when family is so important and memories so poignant, they are more likely to relive and feel the loss, especially if it is recent or if it originally occurred around Christmas.

However, there are more ordinary triggers as well.

If you find tears running down your face because the drug store has only 19 strands of 100 multicolored flicker lights left when you still need 20, or you begin to sob hysterically when you run out of tape at midnight on Christmas Eve with two presents yet to be wrapped, you should realize you are probably trying too hard to fulfill your own and everyone else's expectations of the perfect holiday.

You may be suffering from a simple case of the holiday blues or you may be among the 35 million to 40 million Americans who are afflicted with a serious depressive illness sometime during their lifetimes, said Delight Felps, director of adult programming at Willow Creek Hospital in Arlington, Texas.

"If you have stress that's been mounting for some time -- particularly if you have had episodes of depression in the past -- the holiday season can be overwhelming," said Ms. Felps, who is leading a "Holiday Blues" support group.

"You need a lot of coping skills this time of the year," Ms. Felps said. "Planning and organizing your time so you avoid doing things at the last minute seems to help, but if you are really down, it can be difficult to organize.

Don't try to do everything

"Sometimes it means planning not to do things, just deciding that physically you are not able to do all the things you planned, and you must prioritize so you can do the ones that mean the most to you. There may be some guilt, but a lot of times we overextend ourselves," she said.

Several factors come together at the holidays to aggravate the stress of everyday situations, said Susan Plume, public awareness specialist for the Mental Health Association of Tarrant County, Texas.

"Between the last week of November and the last week of December, families get together twice in crowded conditions, and often they don't even like being together," Ms. Plume said. "You have increased food consumption and alcohol consumption and spending. All those are stressors.

Waiting till January

"People usually don't start calling us for help until January, but it's all building up right now.

"Our information and referral lines are not too busy the two weeks before Christmas because people are too busy with other things to deal with their own mental health problems. They put them off until they are further compounded," Ms. Plume said.

Grace Baucum, who presented two recent public programs on "Holiday Cheer" for Willowbrook Hospital in Waxahachie, Texas, said, "Christmas cheer is always a desired objective for the holidays but is actually more rare than the 'Bah Humbug' approach, and people often feel helpless to turn it around.

"The key words to repeat over and over are 'Christmas choices' as a reminder of our individual power to feel positive or negative."

Keep a sense of humor

She recommends humor in dealing with others and a good hearty laugh at yourself to relieve pressures.

"If we've learned nothing else over the years, we've learned that if you don't talk about a problem, it will only get worse," Ms. Plume said.

"If you know someone who seems especially depressed, confront them lovingly. Show you care and try to get them to a doctor who can diagnose what is really wrong. They may have some other physical problem that needs attention, or they may be grieving over a divorce or death or separation by distance."

She recommends: Don't burden yourself with unreal expectations -- if in doubt, leave it out. If you can't do it all, don't worry about it. Have a tree with no lights this year.

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