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How Can You Avoid Holiday Depression?

QUESTION: I am usually a very happy person, but every fall I start spiraling downward into a depression. I do the family "thing" with friends and my children, but my heart isn't in it. I don't seem to resurface again until mid January. I have heard about holiday depression, but I need to know why this happens and how I can avoid it this year.

ANSWER: Barring seasonal affect disorder (related to lack of sunlight in the winter months), it is likely that you are experiencing sadness associated with what the holiday season represents to you. Since you resurface from your depression in mid-January, rather than springtime, it is less likely that you suffer from lack of sunlight than an emotional swing associated with hidden yearnings stimulated by the holidays themselves.

The holidays reconnect us with our childhood experience of family celebrations. Sadness may stem from ghosts of painful Christmas' past, or from a longing for family happiness that never materialized, or no longer exists because old family traditions have died or faltered. Particularly if your holidays have been marked by depression since the death of a parent, you may be experiencing grief that never quite makes it to the surface, but leaves you emotionally numb.

The holiday season triggers our desires and experiences of what it means to be "family." Lost dreams related to family life may be the source of your unhappiness. Pinpointing the emotional meaning for your predictable downward spiral could help you better understand your needs and create rituals that are meaningful instead of empty.

Finding the root cause of these seasonal blues will allow you to better take care of your needs during this vulnerable period. Approach this problem, using the suggestions below to understand the emotional meaning of this season and what you can do to prevent your downward spiral this year:

Family History
The holidays bring up our yearnings for family closeness, past and present, imagined or real. Consider what Thanksgiving and Christmas were like in your household as a child. Was the atmosphere joyful or filled with uncomfortable tension? Are there unfulfilled childhood desires for emotional closeness with a parent who was remote, or has died, therefore ending any possibility of achieving intimacy with this important family member? In other words, are you yearning the Christmas you had and lost, or just never quite had?

Current Family
What is your present experience of holiday celebration in your family? Do you recreate family traditions that you enjoy with your spouse, children, extended family and friends? Or do you "go through the motions," finding them more burdensome than joyful? Are you happy with your family relationships as they exist, or is there need for a change in your holiday ritual?

Be willing to consider your own needs this holiday season. Are you missing something in your present family relationships that the holidays highlight for you, such as more affection in your marriage or more involvement with your community or your children?

Addressing Your Needs
Be willing to keep a "holiday journal" this year. Write down feelings of despondency as they arise. Trace your associations so that you discover the key themes of your unhappiness at this time. If you are grieving a "Christmas" you never had, what kind of Christmas do you want to create in your family? Or if your Thanksgiving was not what you wanted, how can you create the kind of atmosphere you want? If the season accents the ways you feel "left out" rather than "included" in your family, what activities and people will help you build a sense of connection and belonging this year?

Creating Your Own Meaning
After clarifying what saddens you, take time to express your grief. Mourn what cannot be realized, but do not stop there! Talk with friends, your spouse, a counselor or your church minister about ways to claim this season as your own.

Consider changing rituals that are empty to create the meaning you are lacking. If Christmas shopping is burdensome, consider simplifying gift giving this year. Replace stale tradition with new activities that lend some excitement. For example, you may choose to go on a family hike on Thanksgiving Day instead of watch football! Or join a Christmas caroling group in your community this Christmas.

It is time to find out what your own hidden fantasies are about this "magical" period! Sort out what you cannot have from what you can have. Allow yourself to connect with activities and people that make you feel alive and in touch with your feelings, including sadness. Embracing the "down" feelings will allow old grief to "thaw", making room for new, meaningful traditions to establish themselves in the years ahead.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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