Shrink Rap

Joy to the world? Or a blue Christmas?

By: Merrill Powers, LCSW
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This time of year every store, magazine, and song pushes the joy of family togetherness. But what happens to grandpa when the far-flung family stops gathering because Grandma died? How does a newly-divorced mom greet her first Christmas morning alone when it’s Dad’s turn to have the kids? How joyful is Christmas dinner when everyone is missing 17-year old Tasha, killed last June in a car accident? For many, the holidays are a reminder of loss, stress and loneliness. In those circumstances, perhaps the best we can do is to reflect on the joyful times we shared with our loved ones when they were with us.
Sometimes people feel depressed because of unrealistic expectations based on needs not fulfilled in the past. In those cases, sadness may be relieved with psychotherapy.
I’m reminded of a client who came in the day after a sleepless night. A widow, her three children live in other parts of the country and were spending the holidays with their local in-laws. The prospect of spending Christmas Day alone was overwhelming her with stress and depression. We created a plan for her to keep busy but her sense of abandonment was overwhelming. Exploring her history revealed that as a young child she moved with her chaotic, abusive parents away from her loving extended family. Holidays were a reminder of how much she missed them, reinforcing her belief that her parents did not want her. Once she grew up, married, and had children, she created elaborate family events to compensate. Now the reality of her distance from her grown children and the loss of her husband triggered those childhood feelings once again.
Using EMDR therapy, which assists people in resolving disturbing past memories that get triggered by present events, my client was able to understand emotionally, cognitively, and in her body, that the circumstances in the past were not because she was not wanted. Once she changed her belief to the more adaptive, “I’m OK and I’m wanted,” she was able to strengthen the ties in her community for a greater sense of connection. She released her bitterness toward her children, accepting that circumstances do not allow her to be with them as she was when they were children. Their relationships improved and she visits them when she can with gratitude and joy.
We can increase our resistance to feeling down when it appears the rest of the world is feeling happy by practicing good mental hygiene. Taking care of our minds the way we take care of our bodies gives us the emotional resources to float through tough times. We would never take a bath in a tub of bacteria, but that is just what we do to our brain when we engage in negative self-talk. When you feel rejected because you weren’t invited to a party, how different would you feel if you told yourself, “Maybe the host invited a group I don’t know,” instead of, “See, no one likes me.” We can remind ourselves of our strengths and develop the habit of gratitude as a daily wake-up tonic.
It’s not hard to find gratitude in your own life when you provide service for others. Seniors in assisted living facilities or hospitals, children in foster care, homeless families and animals in shelters, are some examples of those who would love a visit at the holidays. If you scan the pages of the Auburn Journal, you will find many organizations and individuals seeking volunteers to collect toys and food, serve meals, and raise funds this time of year. Their gratitude will be your gift, and endorphins from the connections you make will bathe your brain in a sense of well-being.
You might start by thinking about what interests you. I have an old friend whose passion was bike riding. A single man with no children and few relations, he fixed up bikes to give to needy children. Before long other bike riders joined him, eventually growing into an extended family of close friends who include him in holiday events.
This year the Families for Christmas crew is inviting anyone who will be alone to join them Christmas Eve for festivities. Call Jackie at 530-889-3990 to respond.
The best cure for feelings of loneliness and depression is to make a connection with others. It may feel like the last thing you want to do, but it can be the first thing to make you feel better. Wishing you Happy Holidays, and a New Year filled with vitality – the opposite of depression!
Merrill Powers is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Downtown Auburn. She can be reached at Hear Powers talk more about the holidays and EMDR on Professionals Radio at