How to Deal with Stress | 7 Stress Management Tips
10 Practical Tips for Relieving Holiday Depression
1. Feel the Sadness
Every time I see the movieInside Out, I’m reminded of the critical role of sadness in our lives despite our unease with this emotion. We may try like heck to eradicate it completely — or at least confine it to a small corner of our brain — but the truth is that our sadness is intimately connected to our joy, and vice versa. Kahlil Gibran writes inThe Prophet:
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
December is packed full of joy, which, in my opinion, is why it’s also full of sadness. Along with everything that makes you smile — a beautiful train exhibit, the look of wonder on a child’s face sitting on Santa’s lap, an engagement ring, a puppy under the tree — there is the sense of grieving: of loved ones now gone, of past relationships, of lost dreams or what you wish could have been. For me, when I’m listening to a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria” or “O Holy Night” during the month of December, there’s a feeling of pure joy, but there is also sadness. This year, I’m trying to allow the sadness so I can better access the joy.
2. Know It Will Pass
In my 45 years of dealing with depression, I believe the most powerful piece of advice I’ve gotten is this: know that it will pass. It’s a temporary thing, depression, even in chronic cases. I panic less when I consider my emotional pain like labor pains: It gets very intense, followed by pockets of rest. Even in excruciating depressions, there are minutes — maybe hours — when I can relax in my skin. So I tell myself during a nail-biting episode that this pain isn’t solid. It has holes where I can breathe. Some waves of anxiety feel twice as tall as I am, engulfing me in their movement. But then there are moments of calm. Knowing that depression is temporary is especially consoling in December, because much of it is triggered by the season. The extra stress, pressure to be happy, and loneliness of the month will be gone shortly after the New Year’s sales are over and the ivy is put away.
3. Respond, Don't React, to Stress
As I’ve said in prior columns, I believe depression is essentially a stress disease. Stress compromises almost every biological system in your body, wearing out important organs so that you are left vulnerable to mood disruptions. Constant cortisol flooding your bloodstream can make it nearly impossible to stay resilient to depressive episodes. Obviously, it’s best to reduce your stress as much as possible. Do you really need to send out 200 Christmas cards? Can you tell family members and friends that your gift this year is a nice dinner out?
I realize that if you have a pulse, you are going to have some stress if your life — especially during the holidays. So do your best to respond to it instead of reacting to it. Best-selling author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, describes this in his bookFull Catastrophe Living:
As soon as you intentionally bring awareness to what is going on in a stressful situation, you have already changed that situation dramatically and opened up the field of potentially adaptive and creative possibilities just by virtue of not being unconscious and on automatic pilot anymore.
By applying mindfulness to stress — deep breathing, awareness, meditation, yoga, visualization — we can interrupt the damage that stress yields to our hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals, autonomic nervous system, and immune system.
4. Do Things That Make You Feel Good
In his bookUnstuck, psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, gives the reader instructions on how to write out a “prescription for self-care” and how to design a self-healing package of things that will make you feel better: activities that don’t require anything but a little time and initiative. If you are aSound of Musicfan, this is the same thing as making a list of “your favorite things” and then doing them. My healing package includes things like Epsom salts baths, nature walks with my husband, playing with my puppies, swimming with friends, taking a nap, and going offline for a few days (or months). During the holidays, it’s especially important to find the time to do those things that energize us and make us more emotionally resilient.
5. Watch the Sweets
Loading up on sugar and white flour is one of the quickest ways to spiral downwards. Please believe me when I tell you that these twin powers can hijack your central nervous system and plant very painful thoughts into your brain that are not YOURS, especially if you are sensitive or intolerant to them like I am. In his bestseller , Mark Hyman, MD, writes:
There is no scientific controversy here. The evidence is in. Sugar causes inflammation. The insulin-resistant fat cells you pack on when you eat too much sugar produces nasty inflammatory messages (cytokines) … spreading their damage to the brain. In fact, researchers have suggested calling depression “metabolic syndrome Type II” because instead of just having a fat swollen belly, you also get a fat swollen (and depressed) brain. And psychiatrists are starting to treat depression and psychiatric disorders with anti-diabetic drugs like Actos! These drugs lower blood sugar, lower insulin, and reduce inflammation.
6. Know Your Triggers
We all have holiday triggers. For a single friend of mine, it’s all the Christmas cards: one happy family picture after another, and the letter that goes with it detailing Little Jimmy’s baseball career and Little Sally’s school project that was acknowledged by the pope and the president — together! Being the highly-sensitive person that I am, my trigger is the mall, of course. I’ve already had my seasonal meltdown in Bath &BodyWorkswhenanassertivesales“specialist”wantedtospraymewithevergreenbodymist,orsomethinglikethat.Theoretically,ifwecanidentifyourtriggers,wecandesignsomestrategiestolessenoursuffering.IknowbetterthantostepfootinthemallbetweenHalloweenandNewYear’sDay.Thatwasmyfault.Formyfriendwhohasahardtimetoleratingallthefamilyblissmemosasalonelysingle,Irecommendthatsheplacethemallasideintoonebaskettoreadorobserveatatimeaftershe’soutwithmarriedfriendswhocomplainabouttheirhusbandsandkids,whenshelikeshersinglelifealittlemore.
InherbookTheGivingWaytoHappiness,philanthropyadviserJennySantiadvisespeoplewhoareburnedoutintheirnonprofitcareerstotrytogodeeperintothecauseasawayofprocessingthefrustrationandreconnectingwiththeirpassion.Howdoyou“godeeper”intotheholidays?Youtrytoembracethemorespiritualmessageoftheseason.Youthinklikeachild,andgetbacktothesenseoffaith andhopethattheholidaysareabout.Imakealistofthingstodothatwillhelpmewiththat:Iread“Yes,Virginia,ThereIsaSantaClause”overandoveragain;IlistentoJoshGroban’s“OHolyNight”;IattendHandel’sMessiah;IwatchIt’saWonderfulLife;Ivisitholidaytrainexhibitswiththekids; and if I can stay awake for it, I go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
8. Get Support
Research shows that support groups aid the recovery of a person struggling with depression as well as decrease their chances of relapse. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine assigned 158 women with metastatic breast cancer to supportive-expressive therapy. These women showed greater improvement in psychological symptoms and reported less pain than the women with breast cancer who were assigned to the control group with no supportive therapy.
Of course, support need not be a group that meets in the basement of a church. You could also make an effort to reach out to some of your friends who “get it,” with whom you can swap advice on how to cope through the holidays. You could organize a coffee date with two people you know who struggle with depression and call it a support group. Online forums are convenient too if your schedule is clogged up during December.
9. Make a Plan
If you’re wigged out about spending Christmas dinner with a relative, or two, who seems to know your trigger button and likes to hit it every time he sees you, then do some preemptive planning before your dinner. You would be wise to start strategizing before the doorbell rings about where you are going to sit, what conversations you will have, how you will respond to sensitive issues, as well as boring questions you can ask to fill the uncomfortable voids. You might invent five or so canned retorts to be used when unjustly interrogated, or compile a list of necessary exit plans should you reach the about-to-lose-it-in-a-big-way point. Visualizations can also help. For example, picture yourself inside a bubble, with an invisible layer protecting you from the toxic stuff on the outside.
10. Don't Take It Personally
You think it’s about you when your brother calls you a “selfish, lazy, son of a something,” but it’s not. He may point his finger at you and say, “You. I’m talking about you.” But he’s not. He is seeing something that has nothing to do with who you are. Don Miguel Ruiz says this in his classic book, The Four Agreements: “What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds… Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians… But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell.” That’s good news for all of us who make a habit of taking everything personally. It frees us to be ourselves, even when charged with a character flaw backed by supposed evidence.
Join Project Hope & Beyond, an online depression community.
Photo credit: Maarten Wouters/Getty Images
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