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The Holiday Blues


It's the time of year for holiday stresses, which can often lead to the "holiday blues." We speak with a local therapist about the issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The song tells us it’s the most wonderful time of the year, and that may be part of the problem. Lots of people look forward to the holiday season all year long and have big, perhaps unreasonable, expectations for it. We also tend to be under financial and social pressure at this time of year, and some of us are actually suffering the physical effects of shorter days and longer nights. Put it all together and it spells a big case of the holiday blues. It’s not a good way to feel when everyone seems to be making merry, so we have some tips on how to avoid a case of holiday depression or if you are feeling down, how to get through the season with your reason intact. I’d like to welcome my guest, David Peters. He’s marriage and family therapist here in San Diego. And, David, welcome to These Days.

DAVID PETERS (Marriage and Family Therapist): Good to be with you again, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Are you feeling a bit down this holiday season? Why do you think that is? Have you battled the holiday blues before? Tell us how you did it. Give us a call with your questions or your comments. The number here is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, David, what exactly are the holiday blues? What are some of the symptoms?

PETERS: Well, during the holiday season some people experience a certain sadness, a certain melancholy. Some are prone to feeling some pain from past holidays. We should note that it’s not an actual clinical diagnosis as bi-polar disorder or major depressive disorder. There’s no American Psychological Association recognition of it as a syndrome. But we do have in our popular understanding an agreement that, yeah, sometimes we just get in a real funk around the blues. So people would experience a certain meaninglessness, a certain emptiness, a certain sense of disappointment. For some it can move them to tears or move them to isolation, for others we can kind of fight our way through. It varies person to person but it’s kind of like a very mild depression that kind of disrupts the supposed fun of the season.

CAVANAUGH: Can you tell when perhaps these blues are actually veering toward a holiday depression?

PETERS: Yes, definitely, if you find that your thoughts become ruminations in a negative direction. If you find that you are much more irritable and others around you are finding you irritable. If you find that you’re no longer able to focus well at work or if your sleep is disrupted or if your appetite is disrupted or if you find you’re drinking excessively then maybe you’re veering into the vulnerability for a true clinical depression. Even if it’s a minor depression, it would be something that you’d want to really watch out for because depression is very seductive. Once you start that sliding slope, you can get sucked further downward.

CAVANAUGH: I suppose that the holiday blues is a lot more common than an actual depression though. And what are the causes of feeling this way during the holidays when everybody else, the entire world, it seems, is just, oh, brimming with joy and good will and merry making.

PETERS: Yeah, that’s part of the problem. We have this perception that the world is brimming with joy, goodwill and merry making and yet so much of that is fed to us by the media. You know, when we walk down the hallway at work, do we see people more joyful than normal or is it something that’s just on the billboard that we saw on the way to work? Or in the radio advertisement while we were driving on the way to work. There is a certain disparity between the hype of Christmas and the reality of Christmas or the holiday, whichever holiday you celebrate. Then again, there’s other additional stressors with this. Some people are isolated in their lives, maybe an elderly person whose spouse has recently passed, maybe someone who’s new in town and living alone, or someone who’s just through with a divorce or newly single. People who are more socially isolated can feel exceptionally lonely during the holidays as others get invited to parties and they do not, or others have family to go to to look forward to for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Chanukah or New Years and if you end up alone in the city, then it can be very, very stone quiet for you. So isolation is certainly a major cause. Now some people, during the holidays, enjoy memories of their childhood holidays but that’s not true for everybody. There’s a good percentage of the population that had difficult childhoods and so the oncoming of Christmas brings memories of, you know, dad getting drunk and beating up mom and if this was a significant part of your childhood, then those symbols, the tree, the music, the presents, can bring on different memories and different emotional experiences. And so the distortion between a painful memory of the past or loneliness you experience compared with what we see around us in the culture, on television, radio, the happy time, the warmth and the joy and the merry making, as you called it, that disparity gives us a sense of not being with the rest of the culture. It gives us a sense of being alone and being left out and that’ll definitely contribute. But I think one of the major contributors is just the stress. I know people are already busy. People already have jobs and homes and children to raise and yet add to it far more shopping that’s necessary and we have to get the baking done and we have to get the decorating done and we have to go to three different parties this year and we have to be happy at these parties even though we’re in a rush, even though the house is a mess, even though the decorations didn’t get up, even though so-and-so forgot to buy the turkey on his way home, we still have to try and be happy. And so there’s this collision of pressures on people and the pressures alone are enough to take away the fun of a holiday.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with marriage and family therapist David Peters, and we are talking about the holiday blues. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And right now Beth is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Beth, and welcome to These Days.

BETH (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I’m calling because I’m actually going through a divorce right now and I have small children and we actually don’t have family in town, or at least I don’t. And I want to make sure, you know, we’re pretty religious and for me this is a – I’m still dealing with the loss of not having my dreams fulfilled, you know, having the nuclear family that I was looking forward to. And I really want to be careful with how I handle the holidays with my children so that I can shelter them as much as possible from, you know, my difficulty with this Christmas.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s get a reaction. Thank you for that call, Beth.

PETERS: Well, Beth, my heart goes out to you on this. You’re not alone in this challenge. In my practice, I’m working with couples who are in the middle of divorce or who are newly divorced and you’re right to want to protect your children from the sadness and the loss that you’re experiencing. You have an advantage in that you normally celebrate the holidays in a spiritual fashion. You have your faith that you can still cling to. And so I think what you’d want to do is be very purposeful about the holidays and plan a narrow route, meaning don’t try and accomplish everything you normally accomplish but emphasize the spiritual with you and your children and bring them close to you and talk with them about how we’re going to enjoy this Christmas even though it’ll be different with dad not home. This is going to be a challenge for them as well as for you and, certainly, you’re going to have a need to grieve and that would be to talk out loud with other family or friends about how you’re feeling right now. And if you purposely take time to grieve, to talk with someone you love about the struggle you’re in, then you’re going to be more available to your children when they want to just have fun and be happy, and you’re going to be better able to cope when they express their sadness that dad’s not here, how come? Some small children just don’t understand divorce at all. Older kids are able to understand what’s happening but they still experience the disappointment. And so by taking what I’ll call the narrow path, do only what’s necessary to really enjoy Christmas and try and let go of some of the lesser necessary fooling around with excess décor or shopping or partying, maybe you can bring something very special about this to your children and then feel good for yourself as a mother that you’ve made a Christmas special even in a difficult time.

CAVANAUGH: David, is that what you would suggest for people who are going through a variety of stressful situations, let’s say the loss of a family member, perhaps the loss of a job, to basically just pare down and find out what’s really meaningful about the holiday.

PETERS: Definitely so. The holidays are a time where either we’re going to consciously celebrate the holiday or the holiday’s going to take over and celebrate us, which is not going to be very fun. If we ride along with what the media and the marketers tell us to do, if we give in to the pressures to get lots of shopping done, to get out there and have fun at all the parties, then we’re going to experience that we’re not in control and we’ll experience that we’re just being pushed around. It’s important to decide within yourself what’s important for the holiday. What is the meaning, spiritual or family or otherwise, that I want to emphasize and how am I going to consciously do it? And so you turn down a few invitations to this or that because you’re going to be at home making cookies with the children. You’re going to spend the whole evening just being quiet with them or maybe you’re going to be reading stories with them or maybe spend some time decorating the home, if that’s part of your joy, but do it in a way where you’re focused on the tasks that are most important to you.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, David, I wonder if you could share with us some of the stories you hear from people who do become overwhelmed or melancholy during the holidays?

PETERS: Well, more than anything else, I experience people feeling lonely—that’s the most common—even if they’re in the middle of family and friends sometimes because they may emotionally have a different experience of the holiday than others. And people get a certain bitterness, a certain cynicism about the holiday, the happy, the pressure to be so happy, and so you’ll find some people who say they just feel left out. They’re not feeling it like other people do, they compare themselves to others. In fact, I’d like to get a group of these people in the room together and let them all say, oh, yeah, well, we’re not so alone, there’s a whole bunch of us who aren’t experiencing that intense joy. And, you know, it wouldn’t be such a big deal if we only celebrated the holidays near the holiday itself. You know, if Thanksgiving were three days at most and if Christmas didn’t start before Halloween, you know, and if Chanukah weren’t overwhelmed by the barrage of Christmas, we would have narrow periods of five days to focus on a holiday. We’d do it in a more humble way. And I think people would be a lot happier in general because there’d be less pressure to get everything done and be so happy.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And I think we have a caller on the line who wants to talk about this particular issue, as a matter of fact. Dave is calling from Julian. Good morning, Dave. Welcome to These Days.

DAVE (Caller, Julian): Good morning. I am so glad you’re talking about this. I love Christmas, and Dave just made a real good point there. If everybody – if they celebrated it for a week before or something, it’d be a whole different thing. And I’ve purposely tried to do that with my life. I’ve had a lot of sad Christmases. I’ve got some kids that I don’t know where they are. I told them where I was years ago, you know, and it’s hard. You know, it’s really hard. But, you know, I try to think about what Christmas – Christmas was Jesus’ birthday supposedly, now actually some people think it was in September, you know. But, you know, the whole thing is remembering what that’s about and it’s not about go shop till you drop. It’s, you know, to me, I’ll go up the mountain up here. I’ll get a piece of pine or something and I’ll bring it down and put it in my room, you know, and that’s my Christmas tree. I don’t need a bunch of lights, I don’t need a bunch of – you know, and I’ll give a couple of friends of mine a book or something, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Dave, thank you so much for that. Thanks so much for sharing that. And just making that – taking Christmas or whichever holiday you celebrate and making it your own, that’s part of your advice, isn’t it, David?

PETERS: Definitely. Dave, the caller, has given an example, a perfect example of one of the ways of coping, and I thank you for that, Dave. Going out and cutting his own small tree, bringing it into his home, not spending a lot of money, it’s a focused Christmas. It’s his spiritual event, his spiritual practice that he gets to have and is not overwhelmed by marketers or the media or the movie industry. This is his individual spiritual practice and this can be true for people of any faith, whether you are Christian or Jewish or agnostic or some people even celebrate the winter solstice rather than Christmas, but to mark it with some ritual of your own. Some families have rituals that are very powerful, and to repeat the family ritual is what brings deep meaning to your life but to try and follow what we’re told to do in the media is definitely the prescription for alienation and meaninglessness. Dave has an extra challenge in that he’s away from his kids. He says he’s let his kids know where he is but they don’t come. And so there’s a big challenge. If we don’t have our actual family members close by, this time of year can be very painful and so the answer, of course, is to think who are the important people in my life. Who’s my current family? And to try and draw friends close to us or bring ourselves close to friends. We can find more meaningfulness by a conscious act of care and affection toward our friends than by sitting and grieving that family aren’t with us certainly.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we return, we will continue talking about the holiday blues, how to avoid them or get over them. My guest is David Peters, he’s a marriage and family therapist here in San Diego. And we’ll continue to take your calls. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is David Peters, marriage and family therapist here in San Diego. We’re talking about the holiday blues and we’re inviting your calls. Tell us the kind of stress you deal with during the holidays if you’d like to share your story with us. The number is 1-888-895-5727, or if you have some questions on how to avoid or maybe get out of a case of the holiday blues. 1-888-895-KPBS. David, you know, this is a very particular kind of holiday season because on the one hand, you know, people don’t want to spend a lot of money and yet they’re being urged to by the media and by stores and so forth. And we’re kind of being told it’s the patriotic thing to do this year, to go out and get the economy stimulated by spending a lot of money. I wonder where the middle ground is there for – to avoid stress and this sort of melancholy.

PETERS: It’s a very critical question, Maureen. The key here is materialism does not bring happiness. You know, we’re told this in our spiritual writings, in the reading that we have in our religious celebrations, and yet when it comes time to (sic) this big holiday, the emphasis is still purchasing more. I’ll never forget those few years back hearing the radio commercial, this year give her the gift that will truly express the meaning of Christmas, give her a Jaguar. You know, and it’s complete utter nonsense. And when you have children, there’s much more pressure to purchase gifts. And I warn my client families that past a certain level, the more you purchase for your kids for Christmas, the less happy they will be on Christmas Day and there’s a direct relationship with this. If you have 30 gifts on the floor, they are less meaningful, each one, than if you have 5 gifts on the floor. And some families get lost in the purchasing, parents trying to make up for other deficiencies by buying everything a child dreams of and the pressure for kids to give each other gifts and parents give the kids a gift and then you have to say, well, we have to have the kid give the parent a gift and so we’re going to go out and take the child out to buy a gift back for the parent. The more gifts, the more stress and the more meaninglessness you can have. Gift giving is fun to a certain degree but we want to keep the percentage down by a significant margin. I would say if you’re giving your child as many gifts as the neighbors are, it’s probably way too much.


PETERS: And – But people say, well, how am I going to give my child fewer gifts when their friends are getting so much more? And I say you tell your child this, that this year and—or you can do it each year—our family has decided that other children who are needy are also very important. So we’ve chosen to make a sacrifice and we’ve made a deal with Santa Claus, if Santa Claus is an important part of your child’s life or we’ve just agreed as a family, that we’re going to be contributing to others who are truly needy because we have so much that we’re blessed with already. And we’re going to be happy with fewer so that other people can have more. And then show your child that you’re writing the check to the charity or go with your child to take the toys to the Salvation Army, whatever you can do to show them how we’re giving to others because in the giving, children learn that they have power in the world to do good, and that can make someone feel significant and powerful and bring about a true sense of happiness. But children, if they’re led to believe that the large number of toys is going to make them happy, they’re sorely disappointed. I’ve had parents come in and say, kid’s got a roomful of toys and they come in and tell me they’re bored with nothing to do. And I say, well, you have a roomful of toys. The child would be delighted if he only had five. And I truly would predict that the child would not come in and say he had nothing to do because they would feel each toy’s more valuable and they’d be more happy with it. So we have to be very, very cautious about the purchasing. And we do hear the message it’s a patriotic thing to do to get out there and shop. Well, that’s a complex matter of economics.


PETERS: And at this time, I try and think of what’s the most loving thing I can do, what’s the most sacred thing I can do, what’s the most spiritually uplifting thing I can do? And that’s not go to the shopping centers. That might be getting together with my kids to make gifts that are special to give to family members. Then I’m breeding happiness for the long term. If I’m sitting around a table making gifts with my kids, then 10 years from now, 15 years from now, they have a Christmas memory that they can take with them. If we’re rushing from store to store looking for one more, you know, stuffed toy or gimmick to purchase, they don’t get a good Christmas memory from that. We’re not providing for the future.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with marriage and family therapist David Peters, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s speak with Norval in Lemon Grove. Good morning, Norval. Welcome to These Days.

NORVAL (Caller, Lemon Grove): Well, thank you for taking my call. What my suggestion is that we look at this frenzy of giving very globally because all different cultures celebrate at one point giving, getting dressed up, getting new clothes, and so if you look at the Muslim culture, they just celebrated Eid, which is getting new clothes and lots of food. If you look at the Christians, they’re celebrating Christmas. If you look at the Japanese, it’s Obon Festival. If you look at the Southeast Asians, it’s New Years. If you look at the Hindu culture, it’s the Festival of Lights. So it’s just some kind of way of culturally wanting to feel joy. How do you feel joy? By giving. How do you give? Go down to the starvation – Salvation Army and serve food or go to Father Joseph’s (sic). And also if you’re very – if you feel that you’re very poor, you can look to the rich, how do they celebrate Christmas? They take a vacation someplace and they may go out on Christmas Day and each take $20.00 and buy presents for each other with that $20.00, and so they have avoided all of the pressure from the media and the shopping centers by just doing something little.

CAVANAUGH: Norval, thank you so much. I think you took us all around the world there. You know, I have a friend who spent a great deal of her time in France and she was telling me that in France, it’s really sort of an adult holiday season, this Christmas time of year. The children are involved and there are little gifts given but it’s more about getting together and having big feasts and getting together with friends and family for one feast after another. It’s not quite as focused on gift giving and decorating and baking and all of that that we do.

PETERS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: So what do you think about Norval’s global perspective?

PETERS: Well, I think that perspective can be rich in terms of teaching your children more about the world. We’re now much more in a global society where we have to look at other cultures and understand them. And to spend some time in the holidays looking at other cultures and what things they do is a great way to raise your children, to give them a consciousness of the rest of the world. It’s amazing how some children can get all the way to the 8th grade or 9th grade and be stunned to discover that some people don’t celebrate a Christian Christmas and they find this amazing. But it’s part of raising our children with knowledge of other humans in the world by exploring other cultures. And this is very easy to do online these days. We can do our own research in minutes and have the children join us in that. So I think also her topic of making sure the children don’t get overly focused on the gifts is very important. We’ve mentioned it before but this is a matter of really mental health for the kids. You know, materialism doesn’t breed mental health, it breeds alienation, it breeds disappointment and sadness.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Cory is calling from Point Loma. Good morning, Cory, and welcome to These Days.

CORY (Caller, Point Loma): Hi. Thank you. I was calling because about 8 years ago my sister passed away on the 23rd of December. She was on life support for a few days before that. But her mother decided not to have her pass on Christmas so she just ended the life support on the 23rd and now that’s – it’s ironic or it’s amazing how death breeds new life into, you know, the holiday season for us, for our family and that breathes new spirit into the celebration and every year that rolls around, we just remember and are thankful for, you know, the life she led. And she was amazing, and she was a blessing to everyone she met. And it just – that gave us a new Christmas.

CAVANAUGH: So, Cory, it actually made your Christmas holiday season more meaningful.

CORY: Yeah, well, 8 years ago it was really hard, really tough, but now every year – My stepmother, she has a little, I guess you can say, a party every year on the 23rd and we just celebrate life and celebrate what Erica gave to us. And in doing that, we remember so the whole reason for the – I guess for the season, to be cliché.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Cory, thank you so much for sharing that story with us.

PETERS: And what a beautiful story and a beautiful example of purposefully taking the holiday into your own hands. Cory’s mother made a wise decision 8 years ago to mark the 23rd as this day and terminate the life support so as to not have Christmas and the death of his sister mingled together. And here the family does this wonderful spiritual activity, they mark her life on the 23rd and it’s a sacred time, a family time. It’s certainly not marred by commercialism. They’re able to make the meaning right there within their own circle and it’s something precious to them. And he – Cory’s right again on the issue of death breeding new life, although in San Diego, it seems we don’t really have extreme seasons. In other parts of the country, people do experience a severe fall and a cold, deep winter where we have the loss of leaves on the tree and plants dying off and our gardens buried in snow, and there is a sense of the life around us going away and in preparation for the new life that comes in the spring. Hence, the solstice celebration and Christmas – or the celebration of Jesus was moved to coincide with the solstice many, many, many years ago and both ideas can be mingled together. But here we have a family celebration that’s unique to this family. And I urge all families, develop your own individual traditions that become sacred in your own home whatever your faith, whatever your belief. Here’s a perfect example of turning a tragedy into something truly beautiful.

CAVANAUGH: I don’t want to leave this subject about holiday blues without talking just a little bit about a physical reason that some people may actually be feeling bad during this time of year and that’s, of course, seasonal affective disorder. It’s just because there’s not enough sun this time of year to satisfy some people even in San Diego where we do still have a reasonable amount of sunshine. Tell us about this disorder and how it affects people, David.

PETERS: Yes, seasonal affective disorder, more and more people are becoming aware of this as it gets passed around on the internet and in our popular culture, but it’s less experienced in San Diego because we do have more hours of sunlight, much more so in northern latitudes. Essentially what it is, is a certain percentage of the population, somewhere between 2 and 10%, more women than men, experience depression, a true depression, through the winter months, and this is separate from the holiday season, and it is caused by lesser amounts of sunlight being available. And this is fascinating. We’re learning so much more about brain neurology and psychoneurology. It seems that the brain requires a certain amount of stimulation by light in order to keep itself active. And we have to keep in mind that we humans are mammals and we are related to animals that hibernate through the winter. And so we have this period where as the days get shorter, as we go home in the evening with no sunlight and it’s dark outside the windows, that many of us gain weight and eat and get more sluggish and sometimes even push all the way into a depression. The brain is literally slowing down. This is an important issue because in our society, we’re expected to continue the same number of hours of work. We’re supposed to be just as productive, in fact more productive around the holiday season as you try and celebrate and work at the same time. But the seasonal affective disorder, affecting a small percentage of the population, can be clinically very significant. You’d experience a sluggishness, a sadness, traditional symptoms of depression, feeling of loss, of hopelessness, some people become tearful. For men, they’re more likely to be irritable. But it’s a slowness that seems to be dragging you down. And this is treatable. The one thing you don’t want to do is jump quickly to alcohol to try and wash away a bad feeling or to go to the doctor quickly for medication. It’s not the first thing you should do. This is treatable. Generally, if we just increase the amount of exercise we get, you’re going to raise the serotonin levels in your bloodstream and therefore have your own natural antidepressant. For people where it’s a significant, debilitating illness, what we now prescribe is bright light therapy, full spectrum light therapy. What’s this? Well, in San Diego this is easy to do. You get out every morning and spent 30 minutes walking in the sunlight because it’s sunlight itself that stimulates the brain. And you want to do this with no sunglasses on because the light has to pass through the eyes to get to the stimulating – or to get to the sensors within the brain. We’re not sure exactly how this works in detail but we think it’s related to the melatonin levels in the brain, that it raises the melatonin levels. We have to keep in mind that indoor light is very, very dim compared to sunlight. Indoor light – we measure light in terms of what we call lux, l-u-x, it’s a measurement. And indoor light is like 800 or 1000 lux and outdoor light can be 5000, 10,000 lux in terms of its brightness. And so we want to get outdoors in the sunlight. If we can’t do that – Oh, you want to…?

CAVANAUGH: I just – If we can’t do that, finish your thought, please.

PETERS: Okay. If we can’t do that, there are available therapy light boxes that you can purchase online for between $150, $250 dollars. They’re full spectrum panel lights that you sit down by your side, so when you’re reading or doing your business work, this light box is bright and it’s not glaring in your eyes, it’s reflected light, and a hour of that a day can do the trick, make a major change in your life.

CAVANAUGH: I have to say you’ve given us so much good information. Thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us today.

PETERS: It’s always good to be here, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with David Peters, marriage and family therapist here in San Diego. If you wanted to have a comment during this segment of this program, you just couldn’t get through, do post your comments online at These Days will continue in just a moment here on KPBS.

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