How to prevent a Blue Christmas

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Some call it the most wonderful time of the year, but others notice December on the calendar and begin to dread another Blue Christmas. Depression and negative thinking patterns can strike anytime of year, but the chances of turning into a “Debbie Downer” definitely increase during the holiday season.

With winter fast approaching, I took a moment to pick the brain of local psychotherapist, Barbara Sanders, asking her for some tips and advice on how to prevent depression over the holidays. A graduate of the University of Tennesseeʼs College of Social Work, Sanders is licensed by the State of Tennessee and currently doing private practice in Nashville.

“Conquering depression is a difficult task whenever it occurs,” said Barbara Sanders, LCSW. “Depression sometimes heals in time, but there are certainly some interventions that can assist one’s healing.”

Depression can get worse during the holidays, which are stressful for many people including those who are single, elderly, disenfranchised, poor and the LGBT community.

“If an LGBT person has had family conflict around their sexuality, there are sometimes huge problems with visiting parents alone or with partners,” Sanders explained. “Some, therefore, choose not to visit, but may still get distressed about this, particularly during the holidays.”

If you find yourself single or alone during the holidays, itʼs important to remember the big picture: you are not the only single person out there.

“I have found that one of the best things single people can do is to find other single people to coordinate a gathering," Sanders said. :Some couples also like to spend time with singles during the holidays.”

However, if friends or family don’t seem to be around on the holidays, then a person can always choose to help some of the agencies who serve the poor and the disenfranchised. “Serving meals or giving one’s time and energy can be healing in itself,” she added.

“Depression has many faces,” said Sanders, explaining that the symptoms can vary from one person to the next. “Some find it hard to get out of bed, while others cannot eat or work or sometimes they eat or work too much.”

Sanders mentioned a long list of possible symptoms, which include fatigue, lack of concentration, crying often, frequent irritability, social isolation, or rage. In some cases, depression can affect other areas of a personʼs life such as trouble sleeping or vocational problems like absences or not being able to achieve as well as usual. Sanders emphasized the importance in realizing that
depression looks different in different people.

“Everyone is unique,” explained Sanders. “Some people have lots of symptoms, and some have only one or two symptoms, including some I haven’t named.”

Depression affects people on different levels of severity. Some people experience situational depression, which is often caused by problems adjusting to change or stress.

Sometimes just talking with a friend, a spiritual director, or a professional counselor can help with this type of depression. 

Therapy can help by allowing a person to figure out why he or she is depressed, gain insight on their condition, and discover options and choices that they hadn’t thought about before.

“Good therapy allows people to feel better able to manage their symptoms and who they are,” said Sanders.

Some also choose alternative therapies for depression, which include acupuncture, yoga, meditation and other healing practices. Sanders notes Vanderbilt Center for Integrative Health as an excellent source for those services.

Others may experience more severe forms of the disorder, such as recurring depressive episodes or what is diagnosed as major depression. 

“These types of depression may need more intervention than the first type,” said Sanders.

An important option for those who are depressed involves talking to their medical doctor or primary care physician, who can consider prescribing medication and a referral for therapy.  Someone suffering from depression can also visit a psychotherapist to explore some ways that might help the person feel some relief from depression. 

Sanders acknowledged the seriousness for immediate attention whenever a person expresses suicidal thoughts.

“Those who are actively suicidal may need hospitalization, help from family members, or arrangements for 24-hour support to help them through
such a difficult time,” said Sanders. "Mental health centers, psychiatric units or hospitals, and emergency rooms are excellent places to use for services.  There are also family service agencies and psychotherapists in private practice"

For anyone who would like more information, Sanders suggests visiting Psychology Today online at www.psychologytoday.com, which offers a wide assortment of local and/or national therapists.

Itʼs definitely important to know what depression is and how to recognize it, but what we really want to know is how to prevent this holiday season from turning into another Blue Christmas. While some suggest that staying busy is the answer to battling depression, Sanders was quick to point out that staying busy may not work for everyone.

“Yes, staying busy helps some people, because they can distract themselves,” said Sanders. "The downfall in this approach is that sometimes when a
person is busy avoiding their problems, the problems spill out into the other areas of life, like trouble sleeping or interpersonal relationship problems. Some
professionals think that if people continually run away from their problems, the problems may get worse.”

“When it comes to battling depression, one thing proven to help is exercise,” Sanders added. "So whether that means walking a mile during your lunch break or squeezing in some sit-ups during the commercial breaks of your favorite television show, exercise is at the top of the list for our battle plan.

Not only is it important to stay active, itʼs also crucial to get plenty of sleep. Sanders also pointed out that a person needs to avoid oversleeping, because too much sleep is often linked with depression.

Next on the list is eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of liquids. Local nutritionist Nan Allison provided a few basic steps for maintaining a diet that could help fight depression.

“During the holidays, more than any other the of the year, it is so very important to have regular meals,” stated Allison.

This means eating a balanced meal, with adequate carbohydrates and proteins, every three to four hours. Allison also suggested adding Vitamin D and Omega-3 Fatty Acids to the menu for the holidays, as both are known for helping with mood.

Sanders advised that a person should avoid drinking alcohol or taking non-prescribed drugs. She proposed, “Like staying busy, alcohol or drugs may help
temporarily, but over time those substances can become a larger problem than the depression itself.”

Sometimes it just helps to get creative.

“The creative process can transport us elsewhere,” said Sanders. Playing music or any kind of creative exercise can be useful at times, because it helps a person focus on something that they love and enjoy. Keeping a journal or painting a journal are nice ways to express oneself.”

In closing, when those negative thoughts do come, Sanders urged that there are two things to remember: “This too shall pass” and “It gets better (over time).”