Make a Plan This Holiday Season

Temporary periods of depression like the “holiday blues” and seasonal affective disorder are common this time of year. The idealized holidays in mainstream media don’t necessarily reflect our reality, especially during these tough economic times. Family conflicts can intensify when you’re thrust together for several days or even hours. If you’re dealing with loneliness, grief, illness, financial concerns, separation from loved ones or relationship issues, you may be dreading this holiday season.

Like other mental illnesses, depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Fortunately, depression responds to many things. Following are some tips from the health department counseling staff that can help you enjoy “Happy Holidays.”

1) Set modest expectations.

Instead of setting out to have the best Christmas ever, why not set a goal of having a pleasant day? That will decrease pressure ahead of time and disappointment afterward. Whichever holidays you celebrate, they’re about love and caring, not perfection.

Dec. 25 is not the day to fix all the problems in your family. Set aside problems until a more appropriate time. Avoid topics that cause arguments — politics and religion are really just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re worried about a certain person or comment, be prepared with possible responses, including a polite “excuse me” to step away for a few minutes.

If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, whether from death, divorce, or some other circumstance, realize that it typically takes one to three years to recover. If it’s your first Thanksgiving without them, your goal may be just to experience and survive it. Then you’ll emerge a little stronger.

2) Exercise, diet and sleep.

Exercise has an immediate impact on the brain, providing a positive boost in mood. If you already have a good workout routine, don’t let the extra tasks of the holiday season derail it. If not, commit to three thirty-minute sessions a week to help you through. Eat a healthy diet and sleep for eight hours each night. Make taking care of yourself a priority.

3) Don’t overindulge.

Alcohol is a depressant, so while it may seem like a fun coping mechanism, it’s likely to have the opposite effect. Drinking, eating and spending your way through the holidays is a surefire way to emerge less physically and financially healthy in January. So limit or avoid alcohol, watch those sweets, and don’t spend more than you can afford.

4) Spend time with people — or animals.

Isolation is the enemy. When you’re alone, your mind races, small concerns become giant worries, and negative thinking takes over. Call a friend and get together; that will make it easier to focus on the positive and benefit from laughter. Join group activities to get and stay connected. If you prefer the company of animals, volunteer at the humane society.

5) Help someone else.

There are many opportunities to volunteer in our community, especially at the holidays. Visit a nursing home, help with a holiday dinner or at a church event. Doing something for someone else feels good and puts your own problems in perspective. It’s also a good way to meet new friends.

6) Spend time outside.

Strive for 30 minutes of continuous sunlight a day. A 30-minute walk with a friend is an efficient way to fit in three mood-lifting activities.

7) Seek professional help if you need it.

Depression can have a downward spiral effect when you try very hard to fix it yourself but can’t, which makes you feel even worse. There are many qualified, caring counselors in our community who can help. If your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program, that’s a great place to start — it’s free and confidential. If not, look in the yellow pages under Counselors or do an Internet search. To find a good match for you, screen counselors by asking about their training, experience and how they do treatment. If you’re already working with a counselor, don’t skip appointments, forget medication or miss support group meetings just because you’re extra busy this time of year.