Holiday demands add to depression

Always at around this time of the year, just before the Christmas holidays I feel down and alone most of the time, and don’t look forward to it. I am not sure why but it all started a few years ago after my marriage ended. My children are all grown up and I often don’t want to bother them as they have their own lives and want to do their own thing. I think I always had a mild form of depression but was never really diagnosed. I am dreading the festive season.

Depression tends to increase during the holidays due to more demands, family issues, and being unable to manage expectations.

During the holidays, there is an increase in the number of activities, tasks, and social events that people must manage.

Shopping and gift-buying can cause financial and emotional stress and can create a need to manage crowds, traffic, and malls or large stores.

Family, school, neighbourhood, and work parties create social, time, and energy demands. Traveling to be with family or friends for the holidays can cause a variety of additional stress.

On the other hand, being unable to be with family or friends can also contribute towards feeling unhappy and anxious. If you are experiencing a significant loss or actively grieving, the holidays can be more stressful. School, work, and sleep schedules are often disrupted during the holidays and healthy ways of managing stress like ensuring good nutrition and daily exercise are often interrupted.

The holidays are synonymous with family, so any issues that a person has with their family will come to the forefront during this time.

If there is loss, dysfunction, addiction, abuse, disconnection, separation, estrangement, or divorce occurring or affecting your family, then there is the likelihood that you will have to manage the emotions that are related to these issues. For someone already managing depression, it is an additional emotional burden.

A common symptom of depression is anhedonia, or the loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities or the inability to experience pleasure.

Due to the increase in stressful demands, inability to sidestep family issues, and difficulty managing expectations, the holidays can leave a person dealing with depression with increased feelings of sadness, guilt, inadequacy, and a sense of feeling overwhelmed.

Managing depression during the holidays requires finding effective ways to manage all of the stressors listed above. Reducing, eliminating, or finding creative ways to deal with holiday-specific demands on your time, energy, and emotions are important and working with a therapist or accessing other resources on coping with depression may help.

Having a plan for managing family issues or avoiding them entirely this season may be necessary to prevent an increase in depressive symptoms.

Set realistic expectations, first for yourself, and then communicate what those are to others. You may need to modify the typical “holiday survival tips” advice that is given if you are managing a depressive episode. Instead, give yourself credit for basic functioning, and try not to worry too much about meeting extra expectations simply because it is the holidays. There will be other ones and they can be different than this one. Coming out of the holidays in the same (or better condition) as you went into them, can be enough in itself.

I go to church and have been a very religious person for most of my life. But I also have a scientific mind, i.e. everything must have a reason, and this contradicts my spiritual beliefs. I also often hear friends talk about how they lost faith in religion and don’t go to church anymore because it does not help them to make sense of life. They feel they can better live their lives without the church and God. I argue with them about this but feel sometimes they are right and I am the odd one out. The church has lost meaning for me too but I cannot let them know this. Why do I need God and religion anyway I wonder as life seems to be no better just because I am a religious person.

I am not an expert on religion but I hope to provide something for you to think about in relation to your dilemma.

According to one of the world’s leading commentators on religious affairs, Karen Armstrong (whose work has made a lasting impression on many), religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason.

Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully and even joyously with realities for which there was no easy explanations and simple solutions. This includes having to cope with mortality, pain, grief, despair, anger and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.

Over the centuries, people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage.

Religious practices, when practiced diligently and with great effort, can assuage our terror, disappointment, sorrow and loss which science and modern ways of living cannot help us with.

Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle. Without this practice, it is difficult if not impossible to understand and embody the truth of its doctrines, as well as to assist in trying to cope with navigating the inevitable challenges and sufferings in life.

The point of religion is to live intensely and richly in the here and now, warts and all. Many religious practices since time immemorial, when practiced with an intense commitment to its rituals and ethics, brought their practitioners intimations of holiness that seemed to indescribably enhance and fulfil their humanity.

Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrows of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain and suffering, and even reach transcendence and awakening through this.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.