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The Wintertime Blues:
post-holiday letdown can be difficult - and it holds meaning

by Barry W. Dugan, Healdsburg Tribune 1/14/2004

The winter holidays have passed, the Christmas tree is compost. the wrapping paper has been recycled and the so-called "happiest time of the year" really didn't turn out to be. The twinkling holiday lights have been replaced with the cold, dank days of January. Christmas decorations have been replaced with the crass decorations for the next secular celebration, and the mildew is forming again in the corners of the closet.

Is it any wonder so many of us are feeling blue?

If the post-holiday lull is a time of emptiness and confusion or the winter darkness brings on feelings of depression and sadness, take solace in the fact that you are not alone.

My experience is that people in general get more depressed during this time of the year," said Linda Friend, a psychotherapist in Healdsburg. "Some of it is the letdown from the holidays. And also, if you look at the ancient traditions, it is a time to be more introspective and go inward... if people have lost their way to being reflective and introspective, they don't have the tools to mine that depression and darkness. There is not a way to find meaning in it, to make sense about it and see it as a healing experience."

Friend believes that the takeover of Christmas leads to a sense of emptiness. "A lot of why people get so depressed is partly because of the secular way the holiday is celebrated, and its lost connection with the deeper meaning of the solstice and with Christianity," she said. The solstice is about the returning of the sun and finding the light in the darkness and the Christ child represents the light in the darkness and the birth of the divine child."

Add to this somber mix a dose of isolation and the sadness and depression can be a cause for concern.

"The biggest thing that happens after the holiday season is not only this extraordinary letdown, but that sense of aloneness that you are the only person feeling this way," said Jean Shaw, an ordained Presbyterian minister who lives in Windsor."In our lifetime, the sacred holidays have become secular madness... people have such extraordinarily high expectations that when they are over they feel like they are feastingon sawdust and it's all shadows and light. If you look at these holidays for what they are, they are the sacred markings of a bigger journey than just one day... Christmas is one marking in an ongoing liturgy about the incarnation of God."

When people come to Shaw for guidance, she finds they are seeking answers that can't be found in the secular celebrations that have taken over the holidays.

"When people come to me as a pastor and share their sense of alonenessor depression, it is usually because they are asking questions that the secular world cannot answer: "What is my life about? How do I matter?" That is the importance of a religious life. You are embraced by a community that gives meaning to the whole journey, not just a single day."

Health care professionals believe that clinical depression is a serious condition and requires professional care (see sidebar below for signs of depression and other information), but they point out that it should not be feared.

"Depression is not something that people need to be afraid of," said Larry Robinson, a Sebastopol marriage and family therapist. "It is often an indication of something that needs attention. It we are too quick to medicate the symptoms, the soul is deprived of an opportunity... the old understanding of depression, which I happen to agree with, is really a loss of soul. It is an invitation to do an inner journey and find what is lost.

"That is not to romanticize it, because depression has serious hazards. But there is a new understading thatthe human being is a complex machine and that the biochemistry goes awry and needs to be chemically tweaked and everything will be fine... but it's more of a spiritual crisis. Which is not to say that some people don't need medication. For some people I strongly recommend that they do that so they are functioning highly enough to do the journey."

Robinson and others describe the stress and disappointment of the holidays as a complex serioes of false expectations. There is financial pressure, stress of seeing one's family, and the pressure and expectations to have a happy holiday filled with love and giving. And there, for many, the unconscious expectation of spiritual rebirth. For most of us, it is a disappointing combination. "These are supposed to be celebrations of joy," dissatisfaction that can manifest itself as depression or frustration or anger."

For those who follow a liturgical calendar and ignore the secular extravaganza, the holidays can be a more fulfilling spiritual experience.

"I think it is more of a problem with non-religious people than religious people,", said Father Marvin Bowers, pastor at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Healdsburg. Most serious Christian people pretty much ignore the secular part of Christmas. For me, I'm thinking about Advent. I pretty much just shine it on."

Bowers said the "psychology of the church year is opposed to that of the secular year, where you start this manic thing that builds and builds and there is the inevitable letdown and disappointment on about noon on Dec. 25 when the wrapping paper is strewn about and the kids start fighting. But in the liturgical year the great celebrations are preceded by a period of self-examination and self-denial. The psychology of the church is preparation not through indulgence and purchase, but through self-denial and examination. And when you have purified yourself, you have an extended celebration that is spread out over a number of days (the 12 days of Christmas stretch from the birth of Christ through the Epiphany on Jan. 5)."

He said the pressure of families being together and expecting to be happy during a single day is just unrealistic. "No period of time that is that short (Christmas day) can bear the emotional burden that is heaped upon it," said Bowers.

Symptoms of Depression and Mania

(National Institute of Mental Health: www.r.imh.nih.gov/publicaUdepression.cfzn)

Not everyone who is depressed or manic experiences every symptom. Some people experience a few symptoms, some many. Severity of symptoms varies with individuals and also varies over time. The symptoms include:
Depression
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight low or overeating and weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistant physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
Mania
  • Abnormal or excessive elation
  • Unusual irritability
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Grandiose notions
  • Increased talking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Increased sexual desire
  • Markedly increased energy
  • Poor judgment
  • Inappropriate social behavior
Other Websites:

National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Mental Health Association
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