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Saturday, December 18, 2010

What to do About the Holiday Blues

I got the following email from a frequent reader of my blog. As I am a board-certified cognitive behavioral therapist, I felt I should come up with some good cognitive behavioral techniques. Maybe a list of Do's and Don'ts for the holilday blues. But is that enough? Is that what she really wanted? Here is her letter

"Tis the season to be reading and hearing about the holiday blues! What, I wonder, is your take on the holiday blues? How would you advise those who report feeling especially sad this time of year?

"Also, I see reports in the media that suicide rates go up during the holidays. Again, if you had the opportunity to speak to someone planning to commit suicide, what would you say to them? I felt so sad when I heard the news of Mark Madoff killing himself, and wondered, what words, what intervention, could have saved him?

It seems that in his particular case, he was unable to secure employment due to the scandal his father was involved in, had lost all friends, and his marriage was rocky. Seems he had nothing to live for in his mind, but surely someone could have helped him move on and get past the loss, shame and pain. Surely someone could have helped him see that life is worth living, even when it seems that all is lost.

Just prior to this man's suicide, there were a number of teen suicides reported in the news. What a shame! It seems this is a method of "problem solving" that is being used more frequently.
Finally, when you encounter someone at holiday time who has gone through some sort of tragedy in recent times, what can be of comfort to them? I simply can't get the story of the Petit family tragedy (in Connecticut) out of my mind. I can't wrap my brain around the crime, and to say that I feel sorry for Dr. Petit, the husband and father of the victims, is an understatement.

I often wonder what one can say that would offer solace to someone who has been through something so horrific.

Do you think that someone who has lived through such horror can find happiness again? My heart breaks for that family.

Sorry if these questions seem morbid. If I encountered someone in these situations, I can't help but wonder how to be of any help. I ask you because I trust that even in these desperate scenarios, I believe a therapist would know what do to and say. I believe that you could help people under the most trying of circumstances.

Here is my response to the letter:

What is my take on the holiday blues? All of us are subject to the blues now and then. Holidays are usually worse, I think, because our expectations magnify our interest in our feelings. It is a tempting time to self-focus. Self-focus is always the road to holiday blues and depression Hell.

If our lives are going pretty okay, we expect to feel good. Even worse than our expectation, we are upset if we don't feel good. We are more upset than usual around the holidays if we don't get to this good loving place in our hearts. And if we don't help ourselves out of our upsetness, we start feeling worse. If our lives are not going so well, we expect to not feel as good as others during the festivities going on all around us, and this is even more upsetting and harder to bear.

What can help us? No matter what our situation or condition, we need to acknowledge that every human being needs the same thing. We all want to matter, and we all want to know that someone cares about us. And we forget, when we get too self-focused on our momentary despair, that we are already that which we despair of being. We do matter, and people do care, and this is the abiding, not momentary situation.

"Having never left the house we are looking for a way home."          Old Eastern saying

We need to source the positive in our own hearts and stop sourcing the negative of our fearful minds. We always have the power to do this. We just forget.

"The Word became flesh but that does not mean it ceased to be The Word."       Joel Goldsmith

Sourcing our Absolute positive is not easy to do. It is simple but not easy. Often we can accomplish it alone when we remind ourselves. Sometimes we can't. Sometimes we get so into sourcing the mind's fearful negative that we need a little help from the natural good-heartedness our fellow man.

We need each other to be whole, so we need to reach out to each other when we are feeling empty. Go to a near-empty café for a cup of coffee and chat with the waiter. You could volunteer to help at the USO. No human connection should ever be "beneath" us.

"Order is Heaven's first law and, this confessed,
Some are and must be greater than the rest.
Some more rich, more wise; but who infers from hence
That such are happier shocks all common sense.
Condition, circumstance is not the thing;
Bliss is the same for subject or for king. "                       Alexander Pope

Sometimes we can't remember our own beauty for ourselves, we can't source own own love for ourselves. Then we must reach out, however awkwardly and however hesitantly, and reconnect with those who, at our low moment can take the high road for us, and remind us that we are beautiful, no matter what we have done or suffered.

Our needs as human beings don't change due to our circumstances. Dr. Pettit and Elizabeth Smart lived through horrific circumstances but, nevertheless they are reaching out and reconnecting with all of us in a loving way. More than that, they are in the loving service of humanity in their inspiring role-modeling for us the strength and beauty of their empowering human spirit.

One of my neighbors lost one daughter and the other daughter was horribly maimed and burned in a California wildfire. The family suffered so terribly. My son remarked to my daughter-in-law that they were like Jesus? "What do you mean," she said? He answered that they are taking on all this pain and bearing it for us so that we don't have to.

My daughter in law said that she heard Baba Ram Das counsel a woman who was mourning the death her husband. "He's there. Keep trying to find him and one day, you will find him again, you will be connected to him again, and there will be no pain."

Can you think of anything nobler in his suffering than Dr. Pettit? More beautiful, healthy, and good than Elizabeth Smart at the trial of her kidnapper and rapist? She even put it into words for us who might have missed it. Her message to the world is that you can heal and you can come back from a horrific experience. Any one of us could have reached out to Mark Madoff if he had only wandered in our direction. A cup of coffee and a hug might have saved him.

I sent the letter and got this reply:

Beautifully written reply, A.B.!  Thanks so much.  You brought clarity to a lot of things I have wondered about.

Yes, I hadn't thought about it this way, but so often during the holidays,

... our expectations magnify our interest in our feelings. It is a tempting time to self-focus...
We are more upset than usual  around the holidays if we don’t get to that good loving place in our hearts.

Excellent points!   That's very helpful.

I appreciate your thoughts about Dr. Petit and Miss Smart.  Yes, they are heroic and noble examples.  They are using the tragedies that came into their lives to help and serve others.  That is courageous and so admirable of them. I suppose that one thing that would help them, and others who have suffered, would be to remember, Our needs as human beings don’t change due to our circumstances. 

Finally, it's sad but true, Any one of us could have reached out to Mark Madoff  if he had only wandered in our direction. A hug might have saved him. 

That's a good reminder of the fact that we never know what is going on in someone else's life. A simple kind gesture could make a difference we could never imagine. 

Thanks so much.  I will review your essay again and again, as it is so rich. There is so much wisdom to absorb.
Happy Holidays!

1 comment:


I really like when you say "We need to source the positive in our own hearts and stop sourcing the negative of our fearful minds. We always have the power to do this. We just forget."

My question is. How do we remind ourselves when we are in that fearful state of mind ruminating over how the hell we are going to get out of this "mess" we think we are in. Do we put up flags? I guess it will be different for everyone but I think it comes down to creating a neural pathway that is separate from the dread. It's not easy. Especially when we feel so darn frustrated by the situations we cause. Any way that we can get away from the casual thinking to the more causal thinking is a winner in my book. What I hate is the remembering part. ugh!