Depression After the Holidays

January 30, 2019

The holidays are over and the busyness behind us, at least until Valentines Day. The frenzied shopping, food preparation, wrapping presents, candlelit church services, New Years resolutions that look a lot like last year, all behind us as we face the winter months. So we take a deep breath, our thoughts and feelings catching up to our busy moving body, and suddenly we feel empty, depressed and sluggish. Maybe it was too much candy and special cookies Aunt Susie made? Maybe it was disappointment after family gatherings that weren’t quite so much fun? Maybe it was events full of smiles and laughter that felt a bit superficial? Maybe it was not enough gifts or too many? Maybe it was hoping a bad relationship could be good?

Shouldn’t I be feeling all warm and cozy inside with all that good stuff from Thanksgiving to New years Eve – like a Hallmark Christmas movie with cupcakes, gingerbread houses and snow – always snow that never lands on the actors noses or melts on their coats?

I’m reminded of a popular song in the 1970s sung by Peggy Lee entitled “Is That All There Is?”, her sultry voice belting out the words:

Is that all there is?; is that all there is?

If that’s all there is my friends

then let’s go dancing;

let’s break out the booze and have a ball if that’s all there is!’

It’s very common to feel depressed in January and February, and there are physical and psychological reasons to explain it. For several months we push aside good habits of eating and health and major problems we plan to address later, hoping somehow everything will improve in the ‘good cheer’ of the holidays. Now, we face the debt from overspending, the weight from overeating, realities of a miserable job, an illness, a deteriorating relationship, ungrateful kids already bored wanting more, an addiction that’s out of control.

As good people we have been taught to count our blessings and that happiness comes when we focus on what’s good? But now on the other side of the holidays there is depression and problems that are overwhelming and can’t be ignored any longer. So we chastise ourselves for feeling tired, empty and depressed telling ourselves ‘you shouldn’t be depressed’! But ‘shoulding’ all over yourself doesn’t help either! We’re told to be grateful; that gratitude changes the immune system, and is healthy for our mind and body (which is true). So we write things we are grateful for, yet nothing seems to erase the depressing thoughts or circumstances. Words of gratitude seem like pouring chocolate sauce on sawdust! The thoughts and feelings are still there, like a beach ball that pops out of the water after trying so hard to hold it down under. We mouth the words of gratitude but underneath the smile and positive affirmation pops up again the haunting question: ‘Is that all there is?’

As human beings we search for meaning in what we do. Life is not just about survival, thinking and problem solving but also about creating, feeling, giving, compassion and kindness. The holidays can seem like ‘survival’ only – just getting the next thing done. Now, after all the busyness there’s an emptiness. Viktor Frankl addresses this in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. As a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp in the 1940s, living in unthinkable circumstances of hopelessness, he discovered a secret to life.

Completely helpless in horrific conditions out of his control, Frankl, a psychiatrist knowing the workings of the mind, began to focus on the only thing he had control of – his thoughts and his feelings. It was a simple exercise yet profoundly difficult. He said to himself “ I can hate these people or I can love them. I choose love”. Lying on an operating table suffering as he was being used for experiments without anesthesia, he began creating in his mind a future vision of speaking to a large crowd in Vienna. Over and over, again and again, he determinedly envisioned the speech. Years later he tells the story to a large crowd in Vienna!

New Years resolutions are not just an empty exercise. They are our vision of hope that next year will be better: I’ll lose that weight; I’ll find that job; I’ll pray more; I’ll be a better person! It’s easy to lose sight of a hopeful vision of the future in the midst of pain, overwhelming or difficult circumstances. What’s so powerful in Frankl’s story is he focused his thoughts and feelings and held onto a vision of the future in the midst of impossibility. He chose to love his oppressors rather than hate them; he chose to believe there was some meaning in it all, and a hopeful future. Proverbs 29:18, says, “When there is no vision a people will perish”. “Survival thinking” is instinctive and rightly looks at the worse case scenario, a fight or flight left brain mechanism that’s necessary for our earthly survival. It’s the brains wonderful ability to analyze and solve problems. However, we also have the ability to ‘switch out’ of ‘left brain’ gloom and doom thinking into the creative, spiritual right hemisphere of the brain where we can create a different script, a hopeful vision of the future. It’s not easy but possible! Deep within our right brain God has given the ability to go beyond instinctive ‘awfulizing’, the worse case scenario we naturally focus on in difficult times. In a moment we can shift thoughts and feelings to a future with meaning, a hopeful outcome rather than a hopeless one. We have the illusion that we have control of many things. We have control of only three things: our thoughts; our feelings; our behavior. This simple yet difficult exercise of the mind has dramatic impact. It may not change the circumstances but it will change you, giving courage and strength to press forward. We can answer the question: ‘Is that all there is?’ with a resounding ‘No’! There is more and in this moment I choose to write a hopeful script of the future and trust the outcome to God.

Char Sandberg began working at Meier Clinics on the support staff while completing a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology at Wheaton College. Her clinical internship included work in adult and adolescent inpatient programs at Linden Oaks Hospital. In 1992, Char joined Meier Clinics as a therapist and continues to provide individual, family, and marital counseling for adult clients. She is currently licensed in the State of Illinois as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor.

Char Sandberg is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and has been providing counseling services at the Meier Clinics in Wheaton, Illinois, since 1995.


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