We generally think of birthdays, anniversaries, and the holiday season as happy times. But this is not always true for everyone. Special days and events can be challenges for mental health. Ideally, the rituals involved in getting together with family and friends for Thanksgiving, Christmas or other year end holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries give us a sense of happiness and comfort. That is, they do if they do not trigger bad memories or bring us into conflict with those we would just as soon avoid.
Not Everyone Enjoys the Holidays
There are many people who dread the winter holidays and there are a variety of reasons why this is. For a lot of folks the holidays end up being a lot of effort and time spent with very little in return. The return is not that someone expected expensive presents for Christmas and did not get them but that we tend to expect what could be called an “emotional return” that end up falling short year after year. Many of us have in mind sort of a Norman Rockwell painting of the family around the dinner table all happy and content and the life that we live includes folks showing up late, leaving early, complaints about the food, and a meal that does not live up to expectations. Conversation is too often difficult with those with whom we have been “on the outs.” In retrospect the “Norman Rockwell” vision just makes us depressed.
Too Much Hypocrisy and Too Little Genuineness
Holidays in American society end up being commercial events with nonstop advertising. Every bit of hype in the media is about an idealized world that only exists for a vanishingly few number of us. Christmas is supposed to a Christian holiday with celebration of the birth of Christ Child but end up being a competition for gifts and who can have the fanciest decorations, Christmas tree, or new clothes. Now put into this situation a military veteran who had a tough time in Afghanistan, Iraq, or wherever and suffers from depression or PTSD or both and may even have wartime physical injuries like a traumatic brain injury. The world they thought they were fighting to protect was probably more like the Norman Rockwell painting we mentioned and ends up being more like a South Park parody. It is no wonder that rates of depression rise over the holidays, especially for those whose sense of isolation gets worse when isolated in a family gathering where nobody has a clue about the personal struggles the veteran is going through.
Family Celebrations with Someone Missing
Family gatherings can be especially difficult when a loved one is missing from the dinner table or around the Christmas Tree. This may only happen once a year for many family members but for the combat veteran who lost comrades in arms, it is often a daily ritual that only gets worse when exposed to a reminder of who is missing from the table and their life. What the vet often needs is a quiet place with a friend to talk to and what they get is a room full of people of whom some are tuned into the loss of mom or dad and others are not and some who seem not to have a clue.
In the Northern Hemisphere the Christmas holidays come at the same time as days get shorter and many people start to suffer from seasonal affective disorder. This condition is caused by people having less sunlight and can be a factor that makes depression for other reasons get worse. In addition people stay indoors and tend to have less contact with others. For the veteran for whom isolation makes their PTSD and/or depression worse this can be a real problem.
Coping with Holiday Challenges to Mental Health
Simply recognizing that the holidays tend to make you moody is a good first step to staying ahead of the problem. When winter weather tends to keep you indoors something as simple as going to a local mall and walking around can help. Volunteer agencies always need help and going to help at a food shelf or other organization over the holidays will tend to make you feel useful and break up your winter isolation. And if you are really feeling overwhelmed talk to someone, seek out a professional or clergy if need be and do not endure the depression of holidays and special days without help.