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A Spiritual Approach to Holiday Blues
November 29, 2000
2:10 pm
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A SPIRITUAL APPROACH TO HOLIDAY BLUES

by Judy Marshall, Ph.D. of psychmaster.com

For most American adults, the period from Thanksgiving though New Years is
a difficult time. We seem to be plunged into a virtual reality somewhere
between a carnival and a nightmare. The streets and the malls are filled
with lights, holiday melodies, and glittery ornaments. We are deluged by
special pageants and programs, an excess of food and drink. The holiday
frenzy, like the gifts we exchange, is beautifully packaged -- with the
appearance of merriment and good cheer for all to partake.

Yet, for almost everyone, the holidays create mixed, contradictory and
ambivalent reactions. Many of us experience some degree of distress -- from
low-level tension or irritability to sadness and depression. The most
central issue in "holiday blues" is our internal expectations of what
should be, but is not. This usually revolves around family and
relationships. From the time we are young children, the Norman Rockwell
scenario of loved ones together at holiday time is imprinted upon our
brains. We measure our personal situations against what we are told or
imagine should be the ideal, and may come up wanting.

If we have no family, if we have a dysfunctional family, or if we have lost
family members, the lack is striking, and often painful. Paradoxically,
being with family can also result in intense crisis, even feelings of
alienation, as the holidays can bring out the worst in family patterns and
underscores the poignant absence of those no longer in our lives. Even
people, who are not challenged by isolation, loss, or significant family
difficulties, often find that the holidays fall short of expectations. The
schedule was just too hectic, things did not go right in some way, the
adrenalin rush was followed by too painful an emotional letdown, and just
too much money was spent, often with absolutely no one seeming to benefit
in any meaningful way.

The holidays are a special time for everyone with unique external pressures
and strong emotional reactions, often on the most gut, even unconscious
levels. There is a deeply psychological and spiritual meaning of the
holiday season in our lives, which is often overlooked. In fact, we can
cope better by understanding the importance of the holidays for both
psychological and spiritual growth.

People need holidays. Almost all societies have holidays of one sort or
another -- these are often extended, grand celebrations involving
nonsensical rituals to usher in or mark occasions and turning points. In
modern America, the holiday season is really our yearly extended New Year
festival, bridging one chronological year to the next.

Rituals and celebrations serve an important psychological purpose. Our
holidays are not just archaic leftovers from a less civilized era or simply
a time for vacation or gluttony or getting together with those we love. The
holidays take us from one period of our lives to the next psychologically,
and they confront us with spiritual and philosophical truths and ideals.
What they should do is help us, as individuals, evaluate where we are in
our lives, what is ultimately meaningful, and where we want to go. New
Year's celebrations, such as our holiday time, should end with a sense of
affirmation and renewal -- although the psychological journey involved can
be bittersweet and sometimes painful.

The holidays are a time of personal journey and affirmation of meaning.
Now, we all go on this inward journey, but we do a lot of the deep
psychological processing unconsciously. As the normal world winds down and
the holiday rituals rev up -- for the individual, there is an emotional,
sometimes spiritual pull to the deepest levels of memory and feeling. It is
very hard to escape the holidays, and it is not only the decorations and
the reindeer elevator music. There is a sense of solitary quiet and
spiritual retreat underneath the fanfare. We have this extended period of
"down time," when the task-oriented aspects of the world seem to go on
automatic pilot.

It is human nature in this kind of environment to turn inward to some
degree and get "emotional," attend to the feeling instead of the doing side
of things. Of course, feelings can be positive or negative, and are often
mixed or contradictory. With negative feelings, in particular, we can also
get carried away in a gloomy snowballing effect, which keeps feeding on
itself. We can end up in a rather despairing place, once this begins.

It is important to remember that we are drawn inward to a deep emotional
place, even when we are busy and caught up in the holiday madness. The
busyness of the holidays is very emotionally laden. It is about family,
pleasing others, memories and loss -- like when you pull out Grandma's
Christmas cookie recipe. There is always an undercurrent of "in the gut"
emotionality, which comes from and connects us to a place deep within, no
matter how many gifts we have to wrap, dishes to cook, parties to go to, or
relatives to meet at the airport.

The reflection and internal processing that goes on during the holidays is
serious and bittersweet, no matter what our circumstances. One of the
background themes is that life is, above all, changing and ephemeral.
During our modern American holidays we essentially are killing off and
mourning the old year. But, we are not just abstractly putting to rest
"that year that was." We are putting to rest OUR year that was. And, we are
doing this in the context of another year of our lives gone.

So, it makes sense that, on some often subtle level, all of us are going to
experience a little bit of existential anxiety, evaluate what we did or did
not do over the past year, and be confronted with areas where we come up
lacking, those aspects of our lives where there is a discrepancy between
where we want to be and where we are. It is also not just about career
goals and lifestyle resolutions, -- the holidays pull us to that emotional
and philosophical space deep within. Where do we find meaning? What is
really important? Where do we find and express love? Where are we in terms
of connections to others or to something larger than ourselves? These are
generally the more painful, sometimes frightening areas to deal with and
more difficult to be honest about or to control.

Now there are some people who find genuine joy during the holidays. This
does not mean that they do not feel the bittersweet feelings or that they
do not travel the internal re-assessment, re-affirmation journey that we
all go through. In fact, most people probably feel a mixture of positive
and negative emotions at this time. The difference is that some people are
able to fairly readily access and depend on what is genuinely meaningful in
their lives, and thus the joyful feelings predominate. Perhaps, they are
extremely lucky in their family situations. Not that the family is simply
intact or loving, but they are able to communicate in a emotionally
meaningful way and do not get bogged down in comparisons with others or
trying to meet unrealistic expectations.

Or, those who are joyful often have a deeply religious or spiritual
perspective that provides a framework of meaning that anchors and carries
them during this time. The deeply spiritual person sees himself as
connected to something larger, benevolent, even glorious. The personal
journey of re-birth is perceived as a celebration of thankfulness and
joyful sharing as "light" and new life and fresh beginnings, which are the
themes that we celebrate in our rituals during this time, are the ultimate
gifts of God and the Universe.

Of course, a truly spiritual perspective is achieved only through an
enduring commitment to certain beliefs and values -- many of which are
ignored and even scorned by the mainstream culture. Still, it makes sense
that those who have strong spiritual convictions would seem to benefit at
this time, when all of us are pulled to that deep place within and
confronted, at least subtly, with basic philosophical questions about our
lives.

This is the spiritual time of the year for everyone -- whatever that means
or does not mean to us. To the degree that we have spiritual feelings --
not religious, but that uniquely personal spiritual understanding -- this
can really help in coping with and making the most out of the this time of
year. Unfortunately, the spiritual aspects of the holidays have been
increasingly de-emphasized in recent decades.

There are certain things we can do to try to hold onto a positive and more
spiritual perspective. There are many definitions of spirituality these
days, but a kind of generic understanding of spirituality is that it is how
an individual finds a unique, nurturing, deeply emotional connection with
something greater than themselves. Where we find meaning in our lives will
vary from person to person. However, almost always, we find meaning in a
genuine connection with something outside ourselves. Typical avenues of
meaning can be found through genuine connection with other people, a sense
of tradition, art, and nature as well as more formal spiritual practice.
Spending fun time with children can be particularly rewarding during the
holidays and forces us to reach beyond ourselves. Altruistic work can
involve real connection with those who are needier and is powerful and
uplifting.

Finally, the more we can re-frame and re-direct our emotions in terms of a
sense of spiritual connection -- again, whatever that means for us -- the
more likely we will feel affirmed and validated instead of distressed and
distraught during the holidays.

November 29, 2000
7:21 pm
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i know what will make you smile tonight
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no holiday blues for me this season becuase i wrote a letter to dear santa ..(i've been extremely good this year) asking for a holiday buddy.. my holiday buddy will come wrapped in a big gift box.. (will probabably arrive in UPS).. and we spend the christmas holiday together... sitting under the warm fire eating chocolate chip cookies and playing with toy soliders. we would take walks under the starry sky, under christmas street lights, hand in hand.. whispering christmas songs to ourselves.. it will be an evening to remember forever and an evening to be talked about for many years..

ok what i'm really trying to say is that i dont want to go through another year suffering the holiday blues .. it feels terrible knowing that the world out here is unwrapping christmas presents with smiling faces and decorating christmas trees.. baking gingerbread cookies and couples cuddling in the cold with lots of warmth and joy.. while you're sitting here tapping on keyboard or just staring at the television. hoping that some magical fairy would come to visit you.. perhaps i should stop complaining and go decorate a christmas tree.. does anyone feel the same?

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