We know that this time of year can be especially triggering. What makes it even harder are the television commercials, Hallmark cards, and piped in holiday music that tell us we should be happy, celebrating with loved ones, and taking in the season in carefree and joyful ways. People who are grappling with depression feel even more invalidated and alienated when their emotional and cognitive experiences are out of sync with these relentlessly cheerful images and messages. It is a vulnerable time for many people, and there is an increased tendency towards self-medicating and “filling the void” with compulsive shopping and spending, substance abuse, over-eating or sexual acting out.
Of course, at some point, it becomes apparent that these strategies only work in the short-term, if at all. Sadly, they actually serve to heighten feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, intensify guilt and shame, and create an increased sense of disconnection from others. The void becomes bigger and the desire to fill it leads to an even greater downward spiral. In truth, none of the aforementioned coping strategies soothe the deep hurt that can be re-opened during the holiday season. No matter how much money gets spent or how much alcohol gets consumed, the core issues of loneliness, unresolved family dynamics, childhood wounds, and unhappy holiday memories remain unhealed. For many depressed people, one of the common denominators is this feeling of isolation.
Rather than attempting to fill those voids in self-destructive ways, consider the power of creating new holiday rituals and memories in ways that re-connect you with the world and take you outside of yourself. Maybe that means volunteering at a soup kitchen, creating care packages for soldiers overseas or inner city families, or collecting and bringing gently used coats and scarves to a nearby shelter. Perhaps Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve are best spent at a 12 step meeting where there is a sense of mutual support and comfort, or reading to children in a nearby hospital. These can become profound ways to re-engage, add new-found meaning to this time of year, create a sense of personal pride and accomplishment, and most importantly, install feelings of gratitude. Fro those who are fortunate enough to have safe, loving families to celebrate the holidays with, consider doing one of these projects together. It will add a whole new dimension to the “season of giving” and create a sense of joy that surpasses any image on a Hallmark card. If you have additional ideas about how to ‘reach out’ to others during the holiday season, please share them!