Thank God! The holidays are over. This is a common harangue at this time of the year. It seems ridiculous that a time of year intended to give thanks and count one’s blessings should lead to so much tension. Perhaps the unintended consequence is ridiculous, but the ill effects are not. There are many reasons why people become depressed at this time of year, and here are a few. First, the way the Christmas Holiday has been configured in America, it is maximized towards the desires of young children, as their gifts comprise the greatest slice of the economic picture. This echoes the direction of motion pictures to offer material enjoyed by the adolescent and young adult ticket purchasers. This is not an evil plan, to my knowledge, but the typical manifestation of a market to make the most of its opportunities. This does not mean that it will be welcomed by all members of our society, as is clearly the case. Listening to one’s children complain about the paucity or selection of the gifts can infuse the occasion with a sense of meaninglessness. If you are a middle-class American, it is likely you turned in the same performance as a child.
Second, the holidays tend to bring back memories of loved ones that are no longer around. Whether they are deceased or merely estranged is less important than the way we are affected by the distance. There may be an unfulfilled need for this person, or a desire to make amends and reestablish contact. Either way the affected person may be morose or even mildly depressed at a time when we are all supposed to be happy. The expectation that one should be particularly happy during this time of year makes thoughts of loss and longing especially burdensome.
Third, what of this social obligation to be happy during the holidays? Social demands form the core of culture, and we tend to experience feelings when we accomplish or ignore cultural demands. Even if a person is not particularly sad during the holidays, there is an expectation of being happier than usual. If we do not acquiesce to this social demand, we are apt to feel guilt at the lack of our responsiveness. Another perception is anger at being subtly told how to think and feel, even if the consequences of not conforming are nothing more than disapproving looks. The behavioral literature is bursting with examples of how controlling another person’s behavior tends to increase the pressure to resist. People do not like to be pushed into ways of thinking and feeling; unless they believe it was at their initiative.
Fourth, and perhaps the least discussed, is the holidays bring us into contact with people we may not like. Many friends and patients describe the familial and work obligations that are less than enjoyable. Perhaps due to the social demand of being happy and friendly during the holidays, most people tend not to acknowledge this potentially unpleasant aspect of the season. Even in the closest of family and work relationships, there are people one would rather not see more than once per year-if that! To buck and bridle about visiting the besotted “Uncle Jimmy” runs the risk of being branded a “Scrooge.” See, there is even a special designation for those unfortunates who do not have the appropriate “Christmas spirit.”
What can one do to stem the tide of emotions that flood during the holidays? The first is an automatic response to most mental health issues. Wait. Most of the negative emotions dissipate rapidly after the holiday season. Watching the apparently unappreciative children enjoying their toys, and besotted Uncle Jimmy wearing your gift, tends to ameliorate the initial reaction. January is a “git back to work” month when few expect to be particularly happy. Nature obligingly provides cold cloudy days to accomplish all the accumulated work. It seems a bit natural to be down in January, such that the social expectation to be joyful nearly vanishes! As in my other posts on depression, the typical waiting period is three to six months. If your depressive symptoms do not lessen within this time frame, it is likely that a depressive disorder has caught hold and will require professional treatment. Fortunately for most, the negative aspects of this season fade from view as the more positive aspects take hold in one’s memory. Please leave comments regarding this post in the section below.