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Holiday season not joyous for all

December 07, 1998|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - 'Tis the season to be jolly, but for many the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is a time when they are overwhelmed by holiday shopping and social and family obligations.

"We need to give ourselves a Christmas gift, and that gift is time," said Julie Marker, a staff nurse in the behavioral health unit at Chambersburg Hospital. She was the guest speaker Wednesday at St. John's United Church of Christ.

Marker spoke to a group of about a dozen women on the subject of holiday depression and stress. Her talk was part of a series in the Wilson College Health Ministries program.

For various reasons, the holidays can create stress and lead to "situational depression," according to Marker. That's different from clinical depression, which can require counseling and medication to treat.

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Holidays are a time of family traditions, some of which Marker said can contribute to stress. "Just because we've always done it that way doesn't mean we always have to do it that way," she said.

Citing her own example, she decided when her son was young that Christmas was a day for her family to stay home, rather than trying to fit present opening and visits to grandparents into the same day.

If there has been a recent death in the family, changing traditions can be helpful, she said. For others, maintaining family traditions is just as important.

"There is no perfect remedy for the holidays," she said.

One woman said she had lost several people close to her during the holidays. Marker suggested she focus on the good things those people brought to her life, perhaps making their birthdays a day of remembrance, rather than the day they died.

To free up more time during the holidays, she suggested buying fewer gifts, attending fewer parties, or "maybe we'll bake a couple of dozen less cookies."

"Making a list works. Set down what the priorities are," Marker said.

The more time a person has, the more he or she can share with others. Asked what to do for a friend or family member who has the holiday blues, she said, "Give them some of your time. ... If they need to talk, let them."

The depression some experience around the holidays isn't always a matter of the accelerated pace of modern life. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression caused by a lack of exposure to natural sunlight.

"We have some people come in for light therapy as early as September," according to Marker. Those treatments involve sitting under special lights for short periods of time, she said.

According to Dr. Bob Skelly, a psychologist and director of Lutheran Counseling Services in Chambersburg, shorter days mean some people spend all the daylight hours indoors at work.

That lack of sunlight can lead to a drop in energy, the need for more sleep, overeating and stronger feelings of depression.

Keeping healthy is one way to lessen the effect. In a news release, he suggested eating balanced meals, getting adequate rest and exercise. A few 30-minute walks a week will improve one's mental and physical well-being while also increasing exposure to sunlight.

Skelly echoed Marker's advice to simplify the holidays and be realistic about plans and expectations.

"Letting go of some expectations can help ensure a more relaxed attitude," he said.

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