This time of year you often hear stories on the TV news about holiday depression and how to cope with it. Though the holidays are a rough time emotionally, I've never seen many people who suffer from what could objectively be called holiday depression. Clinics like ours see many more depressed people after the holidays. My theory is that most people put on their character armor a little tighter at this time of year and do everything they can to get through a stressful time, then allow themselves to fall apart a little bit afterwards. They go through the motions, they go to the parties and dinners and family reunions, and if they feel a little sad or disappointed they stuff it, or have another drink. Then about mid-January we start getting calls from people who feel really terrible and don't understand why.

This is not to say that the holidays are not a stressful time. All of us have a little child inside who continually wishes for happy endings. No matter how the holidays go, it seems as if the little child is at best a bit disappointed. Things never seem to be quite as good as we'd hoped, never quite live up to our golden memories of childhood. Our parents may be a bit more frail and forgetful, our loved ones not quite as caring as we'd wish, our children misbehaving or hurt by some careless circumstance. In this sense, the holidays are doomed to disappointment even under the best conditions.

This adds up to a little sadness or sense of loss that must be accepted. But the message can be so strong, the expectation so high, that we can begin to believe there is something wrong with us if we are not full of frenetic joy 24 hours a day from Thanksgiving through Twelfth Night. This is crazy thinking, of course. We are not built to sustain such nonstop happiness; neither do the vicissitudes of life permit us to attain it except at rare moments. But we push ourselves to be cheery, to present a false front of emotions that we feel somehow expected to sustain. This guarantees further disappointment. What good is a family reunion if everyone there is putting on an act? How can we hope to feel genuinely close to our loved ones if we are not saying what we truly think and feel, and sincerely interested in what they think and feel?

Don't take this as advice to get intoxicated and tell off your brother-in-law. At the holidays, be prepared to experience a full range of emotion, from happiness to sadness, joy to anger, but remember that these feelings will be more intense than usual because of the season. Embrace them. Let yourself remember what it was like to be disappointed at Christmas, if that is how you feel. Let yourself be righteously indignant about our society's response to the needy, if that is how you feel. Let yourself be close, sharing, and joyful, if that is how you feel. Feelings are only an inevitable part of being a human animal. Use common sense in how you express your feelings, but if you don't want to suffer the post-holiday blues, give yourself permission to feel.

Besides the ordinary holiday stress that all of us can suffer from at this time of year, there are others who have an especially hard time now. There are people who are truly lonely at the holidays. The elderly may be isolated and feel forgotten by their families; a card and a phone call only go so far. People whose economic condition has worsened may feel ashamed or inadequate that they can't provide for their families as they did in the past. Those who have lost a loved one during the course of the year can expect to have a rough time because the holidays bring back memories of better days. Sadness and grief in such circumstances are normal and not to be feared. If you've gone through the loss of a loved one or suffered some similar blow to your psychological balance this year, you may get some comfort from reflecting that such pain does diminish, with time. Otherwise, try to open yourself up to those around you who may want to try to ease your pain but don't know how. Or seek out someone in a similar situation who may appreciate your company. Just spend time with others--go bowling, make cookies, go for a walk, but do it in the company of those who may care about you.

Author's Bio: 

Richard O'Connor is a practicing psychotherapist
with offices in New York City and in Canaan, Connecticut. For the past twelve years he has
been executive director of the Northwest Center for Family Service and Mental Health, a
private, nonprofit mental health clinic serving Litchfield County, Connecticut. He is the
author of Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn't Teach You and Medication Can't Give You
(Little, Brown 1997; Penguin Putnam 1999) and Active Treatment of Depression (Norton,
coming spring 2000)

A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, O'Connor received his MSW and Ph.D. from the
University of Chicago, followed by postgraduate work at the Institute for Psychoanalysis
and the Family Institute. He has worked in a wide variety of settings, from inner-city
clinics to wealthy suburbs.