Experts offer suggestions for dealing with holiday anxiety and depression

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At this time of year, everywhere around there are full of holiday images of family gatherings, brightly lit trees, lavish gifts and tables laden with rich foods, beverages and desserts.

For those whose depression and anxiety is triggered by the holiday season and those who have lost a loved one, a treasured pet, or even a job and are grieving, the holidays can be tough to navigate.

“One of the things we do say is to know your own limitations,” said Karen Monts, practice manager of Counseling Services at Hospice of Michigan. “Don’t feel pressured to do things a certain way or allow images on television to get into your mind so that you feel like everyone is having a wonderful holiday except you, because we know that is not the case.”

For someone experiencing the first holiday without a family member, friend or pet, even something like watching a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie can be a trigger. Monts says trying to plan ahead for the holiday can help to alleviate stress and depression.

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“You know this is going to be a different holiday without that loved one, so try and figure out what works for you,” Monts said.  “Maybe you do not go to the family gathering this year or maybe you do, but spend less time there.

“Maybe you take a walk in the woods on Christmas because you feel good when you’re out in nature.”

Monts encourages everyone not to forget about self care during the holidays — things like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and setting aside time for yourself to do something just for you. She also advises those with loved ones who are experiencing depression or anxiety to respect the boundaries they may set at this time of year.

“You may have to redefine what the holiday looks like and ask yourself what the season is about for you personally,” Monts said. “It is okay to turn compassion inward and be self focused.

“We are good at doing that for others, but not good at turning that inward and figuring out what we really need to do for ourselves at a particular time.”

Monts advises people who are experiencing grief, anxiety and depression at the holidays to use the “AIM” method to sort out their emotions: access what you are feeling; identify what you are experiencing; and manage what you do in response to those feelings.

“We feel like something is wrong with us because we are feeling this way, but if you’ve lost a loved one, the holiday is a reminder that they are gone,” Monts said.

Henry Ford Health psychiatrist and Director of Physician Wellness Dr. Lisa MacLean said even people who enjoy the holiday season sometimes find themselves feeling sad or stressed.

“There is a lot of pressure to make the holiday magical and there are a lot of demands people place on themselves that can really stress them out,” said MacLean. “The holidays are viewed by society as a time of rejoicing, but for many it is a time of painful reflection and sadness and a time when people are very vulnerable.

“Even things happening in the world that are unrelated to the holidays can cause people to be anxious or sad and can affect their ability to enjoy this time of year.”

MacLean added while those with mental health conditions are more prone to experiencing depression at the holidays, anyone can have those feelings. She reminds everyone to pay attention to friends and family, especially those who are alone. Check in with them and make sure they are OK.

“It is really hard if the holidays bring up painful memories,” said MacLean. “We want to validate people’s experiences and give them the space to celebrate in any way that feels right to them.”

Driving around with a friend to look at holiday lights or attending a local Christmas concert are some low key, low cost activities that can help people get into the holiday spirit without putting themselves in a potentially stressful situation.

MacLean has a list for anyone experiencing anxiety or depression that can help them navigate the holidays:

Validate and accept people where they are at
If you are going to consume alcohol, drink in moderation
Don’t isolate yourself
Get outside
Learn that it is OK to decline social invitations
And have realistic expectations.

“Be kind to yourself and let go of the desire for perfection,” MacLean said.

Macomb County Community Mental Health Director of Community and Behavioral Health Services, Elizabeth Vutci said to try to be non judgmental to yourself and recognize you will have good days and not-so-good days.

“Have realistic expectations of what you can accomplish on a given day,” said Vutci. “It is OK to say no to social invitations and it is OK to leave events early or opt to stay for a short time.

“There can be societal pressures to be cheerful and in the holiday spirit which can be tough for someone managing mental health issues. financial worries, and family pressure.”

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