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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, December 8, 2023
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Health Beat: Keeping the Holidays in Perspective

Bells ring, carolers sing, decorations glitter, children twitter, candles glow, rum flows, the maubi is iced, the black cake is sliced – so why isn’t everybody happy?

There are lots of reasons to feel less than elated during the holidays, and in her practice at Synergy Fitness and Wellness Center, psychologist Carolyn Clansy Miller has encountered many of them.

“I do think that the holiday blues are real,” Miller said. Although she doesn’t get a lot of calls during the actual holidays, once they are over, “the phones light up” from folks who survived rather than enjoyed the time.

“There are a lot of expectations that cause stress,” she noted. “People try to live up to that expectation, but it’s at a cost – whether physically or financially.”

They are looking for the perfect gift – and in some cases there is pressure to spend lavishly on presents, adding to any concerns over finances. Some people believe they have to produce an award-winning family meal and lose sleep to do it. Then there’s the question of where to spend the big days – with the man’s family or the woman’s relatives, or with one set of friends or another.

“Family is the theme of the event,” Miller said.

From singles, Miller said she hears a lot is anxiety over their failure to be other than single. “There’s pressure to have to explain themselves.” Do they have someone close enough to bring to the family gathering? Will there be a date for New Year’s Eve? Will there ever be children of their own?

There may be even more serious drawbacks. If part of the holidays involves being “nice” at a family gathering to an uncle you normally avoid because he beat you when you were a child, that’s a pressure no one wants to handle.

Of course, cherished remembrances of childhood Christmases, or other holidays shared with loved ones, can be one of the greatest pleasures of the season. But memory can be a double-edged sword, stabbing a person with disappointment with his present situation, underscoring how alone he is compared with days gone by when kith and kin gathered close.

For those who recently parted from a close friend or whose loved one has died, “the loss can be more profoundly felt” during the holidays, Miller said.

Despite the conventional wisdom that special occasions are particularly hard on people who suffer from emotional or mental instability, Miller said, “Holidays in and of themselves do not necessarily effect them.”

However, aspects of the festivities can be difficult for some people, especially alcoholics and people with bipolar disorders or other conditions impacted by a lot of stimulation such as loud music.

“It’s hard not to overindulge, whether it be fattening foods for a dieter or liquor for an alcoholic, Miller said, “because they’re surrounded by it. There’s a subtle message that it’s okay.”

If you know those things are unhealthy temptations for your guest, don’t provide them. That kind of abstinence is a real gift, Miller said.

She had plenty more practical advice to keep things in perspective.

If you’re hosting everyone for Old Year’s Night, don’t cook everything yourself; make it pot luck.

“Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to ask for help,” Miller said.

If you lost a loved one last year and this is the first holiday without him or her, carve out some time for grieving, she suggested. You may also want to remember the person in a special way.

Miller said she has often used the example of a patient who decided to honor her recently deceased mother – the matriarch of a family and a renowned cook – by having each guest bring a version of the woman’s best loved dishes for the holiday meal and having a contest to choose the best one.

“It ended up being a hoot,” Miller said. It was a very tangible way of making her present at the gathering, but was also a light-hearted way to remember her, as the guests teased one another about their attempts to recreate her masterpieces.

In another case, the family of a person who collected cups gave one to each of the people who were close to her. In yet another example, Miller said, a woman who lost a close friend and travel companion decided to avoid going through the traditional holiday events she used to share with her friend and go for a cruise instead. It was a way to recall her friend’s wanderlust.

“People need to be reminded that they do have control,” Miller said. “You need to make a concerted decision about what you want to do” for the holidays. If you feel you have to attend a function that makes you uncomfortable, limit your time there. If you are missing a person or place that was central to former holidays, make an effort and create a new normal. “It can still be beautiful, and it can still be very meaningful.”

As for that potentially biggest emotional defeat – the broken New Year’s resolution – Miller said don’t make a resolution. Set a goal instead.

The resolution tends to be a wish. The goal requires specific action and deadlines. “I’m going to lose weight in 2016” is a resolution. “I’m going to lose at least two pounds every month in 2016, and I’ll check the scale on the first and the last day of each month” is a goal.

However you celebrate the holidays, Miller has one more piece of advice: Keep it simple. 

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