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Mental Health Expert Offers Tips for a Happier Holiday Season

With holiday celebrations to attend and family gatherings to prepare for, the winter season can be busy and joyful. But for many//, heightened expectations and the stresses of holiday events can increase anxiety and cause depression.

“While depression is one of the most common illnesses for adults, seasonal blues can be experienced by many who aren’t ‘clinically depressed’ or otherwise diagnosed,” said Waguih William IsHak, MD, medical director of the Adult Outpatient Psychiatry Service at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

According to IsHak, unrealistic expectations of family gatherings and parties often lead to disappointment and depression around the holidays. Financial stress, overbooked schedules and memories of “perfect” holidays past or lost loved ones can also all contribute to feelings of tension, anxiety and sadness.

“In terms of relationships, nothing magical ‘just happens’ during the holidays,” said IsHak. “If you don’t get along with your in-laws during the year, you’re probably not going to get along with them during the holiday season either. Understanding that before you go to visit them can make a big difference in how you’ll handle your feelings while you’re there."

Since holiday schedules are hectic and often include unstructured time, planning ahead and anticipating how you’ll handle difficult situations can have a big impact on how you experience the holiday season.

“If you plan ahead and focus on what you really enjoy about the season, you can spend more time ‘living in the moment,’ which is the key to getting the most out of each holiday experience, said IsHak.

IsHak offers several suggestions for coping and enjoying the holiday season more fully:

* Have realistic expectations of interactions you’ll be having with family and friends. Chances are that your relationships with people will have not changed much unless you’ve invested in improving those relationships dur ing the past year.

* Make a list and prioritize the activities that are important to you. Make time for those; consider carefully whether you absolutely need to do everything on that list.

* Don’t lose sight of the meaningful moments of the season. Look for them, and be optimistic that you’ll find them.

* Limit your drinking. Drinking too much can lead to uninhibited behavior, hangovers, and remorse, all of which can lead to depression.

* Let others share responsibilities of the season. No one person in a family should feel burdened by all of the shopping, party planning, cooking and holiday activities.

* Make an active effort not to worry too much or get bogged down with details. Live in the moment as much as possible.

* Keep track of your holiday spending. Gifts that you can’t afford won’t make you happy – and the cost of the gift probably won’t be that important to the receiver. Consider the more important aspect of giving -- making the person who you give the gift to feel good, appreciated, and/or loved. Spoken or written words are more powerful than dollar amounts.

* Try to eat well and get enough rest. Hard to do, but the benefits of both are obvious.

* Spend time with supportive and caring people; reach out to others who may benefit from your support.

* Make time for yourself. Everyone needs downtime.

* Remember that there is no ideal or model for a perfect holiday. With intermarriage, second marriages and so many different types of families, feel free to create your own unique way to celebrate.

The holidays are also a time when people feel the loss of a loved one more sharply. Dr. IsHak suggests planning something meaningful during the holidays in that person’s memory, such as donating a gift to the needy or volunteering.

“The season offers many opportunities for joy and celebration,” said IsHak. “The challeng e is to acknowledge and address the potentially negative aspects of the season beforehand. By being flexible, dealing with the ‘here and now,’ having a sense of humor and trying to be as compassionate and forgiving as you can, it is possible to have a happy – and rewarding – holiday season”


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