By Maggie Lake
We all have the perfect holiday image in our minds: gifts galore, beautiful decorations and parties, great food, happy children tearing through one perfect gift after another. Maybe we remember our own perfect childhood holidays. We want to recreate them or versions of the stories we see in the relentless commercials and magazine ads.
Now let’s talk about reality. You are NOT living in a television family. You do not have unlimited funds to buy all of the furnishings for the perfect party or the perfect mountain of toys and clothing. Maybe there are family stresses: poor health, unemployment, children acting out or doing poorly in school. These things don’t go away for the holidays and, in fact, may become more pronounced around them.
Still, we want that picture perfect time. We become upset, angry, depressed or anxious trying to make it happen. We cope in the same ways we always have under these circumstances; we eat and drink too much, we sink into a funk, we get angry.
Here at Putney Family Healthcare we definitely see more real colds and tummy aches this time of year. Stress lays us open to disease. We see more anxiety. Some people are panicked because there is no way they can possibly be sick for all the holiday office parties, school concerts and family events they have to host or attend.
Nurse practitioners like me are very aware of the power of the mind and how it can affect our physiology. When a patient presents us with an illness, we spend a lot of time talking to her or him before ordering blood work or imaging to help determine the origin of the complaint. We examine both the physical and emotional components of each patient.
Some people do suffer from a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately shortened to S.A.D., where the lack of sunlight and Vitamin D (provided by sunlight) during winter days can trigger anxiousness or depression. S.A.D. can be decreased through the use of full-spectrum lighting in areas where you spend a lot of time such as your office desk, above the sink where you do the dishes, etc., or by spending time outdoors. S.A.D. only compounds the pressures of the holiday season.
I’ve been exchanging a lot of emails with friends and family about holiday depression this year and what to do about it. There are thousands of articles and blogs and studies about the causes, the symptoms, and tips for dealing with stress brought on by the intensity of the season. I had to laugh when one site suggested combating S.A.D. by flying off to the Caribbean. But most sites had good information about how to take care of yourself with sensible eating, exercise, sharing the work and changing expectations.
Instead of tips, I have a list of “must do’s.”
- Talk with your family before the big day, or days, and tell them if you’re stressed about finances. Perhaps each person is getting only one gift. Establish new traditions that replace gift giving with family time, like preparing a meal as a family and then playing a game. Doing it differently isn’t going to hurt anybody.
- Someone wrote me that they love to do a family walk or hike. Get out there and embrace the outdoors, whether it’s snowy or this lovely warmth we’ve been experiencing. Getting a bunch of friends into a group to walk and talk is great for your mind and justifies eating some of those holiday foods. Exercise is critical, so do some alone-time walking as well.
- Call up friends and share stories and lend an ear.
- Volunteering is great for relieving anxiety and depression. There are so many places to do that here (including the hospital). Bring that pumpkin bread to someone you know. Have your kids pick out a toy to wrap up and give to someone else.
I think of the many families I work with. I know of their stresses. I know what pressures are on them at this time of the year. I want all of us to remember that less is more. A handmade picture or other item can mean so much more than a pile of plastic toys. A book can be from a used book store. To the recipient it is still “new” and colorful and can transport you and your kids to other places. Read together. Eat together. Go outside and chase each other around. Teach one another that the best things in life are free: health, love, kindness, respect, fun.
The holidays are so confusing. Society pushes us to believe that we need it all to be just so. We totally lose sight of its meaning. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Come in and talk to your health practitioner about how you are feeling if it seems overwhelming to you. And know that we all struggle with these periods of depression and stress.
Maggie Lake, FNP is a nurse practitioner practicing with Putney Family Healthcare, a member of BMH Physician Group.