Beating the Christmas blues

2008-12-22 00:00

Do you dread the Christmas family tradition? The obligations and expectations family places on you during the festive season? Maybe for you, like so many others, the biggest source of holiday stress is the family. Hollywood stories create unrealistic expectations of the ideal family, which may make people resentful or heighten the tension or conflicts between family members if their families don’t quite match up.

“There’s this vision and movie ideal that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be fun and stress-free,” says Johannesburg-based psychologist Christo van der Westhuizen. “The reality is that family relationships are complicated and can be full of stress. But that’s not a reason to ignore the holidays.”

What is it about this time of year that gets you down — really? For many of us there’s a general sense of unease and anxiety but once you are able to identify specific problems, you are able to deal with them directly. Holiday stress can be triggered by a variety of things, such as unhappy memories, toxic relatives, or self-reflection and a disappointment at what has changed, or stayed the same.

If you associate the holidays with a bad time in your life — the death of a loved one, a previous depression — this time of year will naturally bring those memories back. “For people who have recently lost a loved one or are spending their first Christmas alone, Christmas and family gatherings can be incredibly stressful,” says Van der Westhuizen.

The holiday season is a break from your normal routine and, as such, gives you time to think and reflect — sometimes to your detriment. “The holiday season often highlights what has changed in your life. If these changes are good ones — a great new job, a marriage, a baby — they had a certain stress but a happy one. If, however, you’ve experienced traumatic change such as a divorce or a death in the family, this can unsettle you.”

It can be hard to deal with these emotions and memories, particularly over the festive season. “Keeping things bottled up is a very bad idea,” says Van der Westhuizen. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) has counsellors on duty seven days a week from 8 am to 8 pm — Christmas, Family Day and New Year included. A call to 011 262 6396 or the toll-free suicide line 0800 12 13 14 offers a friendly, compassionate ear, support and advice during this time of year.

For some people, however, it is the fact that it seems nothing has changed that causes them stress. The monotonous sameness of family gatherings can be depressing — the same faces, the same jokes, the same food, looking at the same lopsided tree can be a reminder of a stuck life. “My cousins and I always laugh and mouth the words of the jokes that my uncle tells at Christmas. They’re the same jokes as when I was five,” says 28-year-old Brian. “We laugh about it but inside I feel angry. I wonder why I’m stuck in a rut and can’t seem to escape it.”

Let’s face it, many of us simply don’t like certain members of our family — the drunk uncle who makes lewd jokes, the tactless aunt who asks whether you’re still on your medication. The festive season can put you in the same room with relatives you avoid the rest of the year. And people struggling with depression may face stigma, too.

“Some relatives just don’t get it,” says 42-year-old depression sufferer Mpumi. “My family doesn’t believe I’m depressed. They don’t understand that this is a horrible time of year for me. I have too much time to think, reflect and wallow. They think I’m lazy. It can really hurt.”

Balancing the demands of shopping, gift wrapping, family obligations, visitors and financial expenses may leave you feeling overwhelmed and stressed. You may develop stress responses like headaches, you may drink excessively or overeat, or you may develop insomnia. Sadag warns that signs of depression or serious stress should not be written off as mere holiday blues in the hope that they’ll disappear in January. “It can be dangerous to ignore depression symptoms,” says Sadag’s counselling manager Cassey Amoore. “If you’re worried or not sure how to handle holiday depression, rather call us.”

Experts say the festive season can make people feel out of control. But you do have a say and the key to surviving the holidays is to take charge. “For as long as I remember we have had my grandmother’s Christmas pudding. It’s a family tradition — but it was inedible. We drowned it in brandy and custard just to try to swallow a bite,” says Jackie. “For years I dreaded it. Last year my husband asked me why I don’t just say no or why we don’t take our own.

“Something dropped. I realised that I didn’t have to be a slave to the Christmas pudding. And Grandma was grateful that someone took some of the work off her shoulders — and so was the rest of the family!”

The holiday season can offer plenty of reasons to be stressed out and our tendency to compare our families with their idealised versions is a recipe for disaster. Most of us have less than perfect holiday gatherings. If you are not feeling festive coming up to the holidays, don’t try to deny your feelings. There’s nothing wrong or odd about feeling a bit down at this time of year. So this holiday season, don’t unthinkingly do things the same way, just because that’s how you always do them. Make a choice, take a stand and do something different — even volunteer and allow a hospice worker, a frail care assistant or hospital clerk time off with his or her family.

— The South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

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