Pamela Cantor M.D.
There may be an antidote.
- The holidays can be joyful, but they can also be stressful, particularly for people who are already suffering from depression.
- To some degree, we can choose how to respond to holiday-related stress.
- Positive actions, such as service to others, may boost helpful, healing biological processes.
The holidays are not a holiday for all of us. They can be reminders of someone we have loved and lost. Of long-distance separation from family and friends. And they are times for taking stock of what we have and what we don’t, of what feels like success and what feels like falling short. And then all the shopping and gift-giving, the travel in bad weather, the work deadlines, and, for college students, final exams and papers. Yes, holidays can be very stressful!
If you are already a person who sees the world as a glass half-empty, the holidays can make it far worse.
Especially if you are scrolling through social media and seeing all the tidings of joy, perfect holiday décor, elaborate parties and presents, and lots of smiling faces.
No one sends a melancholy holiday card, but if your outlook is not rosy when you open card after card, all that projected happiness can produce feelings of sadness. It can seem that everyone else has it better, even if the truth is that they don’t.
A Choice Between Two Paths
There are two pathways we can choose to go down during this season. Let’s call them action pathways. And both are biologically mediated.
The first is characterized by exaggerating emptiness, and the second by demonstrating gratitude.
The empty path is one where the stress goes high, and the mood goes low. Everything you don’t have becomes magnified. And for people who suffer from depression, it can be a horror show. A downward spiral triggered by too much of the stress hormone cortisol and too little of helpful hormones and neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine. What I believe my life doesn’t have far outmuscles what I do have. The can’ts outdo the cans—I can’t be with someone I love, I can’t afford to buy a present for someone I love, or I don’t have what I wish I had.
The path of gratitude, by contrast, produces an upward spiral—a boost of the healing love hormone, oxytocin, along with dopamine and serotonin. Stress goes down, and mood goes up. Positive actions, altruistic ones, give you the mental control to assess life through the lens of what you can give to others. Think about the look on the face of someone you have given something precious to, even just time, interest, and caring, and see how it feels inside.
The Gifts of Gratitude and Giving
There is no shortage of opportunities to practice gratitude and altruism. There are the simple things, like being grateful for good health, a job, or a roof over your head. Then there are the things beyond your four walls, like bringing a meal to an older person who lives alone, providing clothing or toys to a refugee family, or teaching a child to skate.
Positive actions produce positive biological events. So, start by setting a goal you can reach—be grateful for what you have. Then look around your community and offer what you can to help others. The thanks you receive in return will fuel that upward spiral and might just power you—with helpful hormones—into the new year.