I absolutely love this time of year for so many reasons. The holiday season tends to embody a certain magic and innocence that we have somehow lost throughout the year. And yet – for the same, if not more reasons I adore the holidays – I also find this time of year to be stressful, difficult, and demanding. The day-to-day pressures are hard enough. Add the holiday stresses and shorter, darker days, and the stress levels of December seem to compound overnight.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of presenting a lecture entitled, “Natural Ways to Beat the Holiday Blues” to the patrons of the Cape May County Library. I was comforted in the fact that I’m not the only one to experience the “December doldrums.” The good news is that we can make some safe, gentle changes to our lifestyle in order to boost our mood and lessen the amount of anxiety we experience this time of year. I’m a firm advocate of “brain health,” so I found this lecture to be incredibly useful in my own practice, as well. The following is a brief synopsis of what I presented yesterday. Once again, thank you to the patrons and staff of the Cape May County Library – it is truly a pleasure!
Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
We drive the same route to work every day, sit in the same cubicle, eat lunch in our same special spot. We tend to our duties at home, set the alarm, and do the same thing the next day. Maybe your day sounds a little different, but chances are you follow your own schedule just as similarly. I love having a routine. I couldn’t imagine living my life or raising my family without one. The problem with routines is that it is all too easy to succumb to a life on “autopilot.” When our routines become so engrained in our subconscious that we do them without thinking, then we are not being very mindful.
Being mindful allows us to live in the here and now. We are able to take control of the situation because we are present and participating. Most importantly, we can more easily finagle ourselves out of or avoid stressful situations if our minds are active and engaged.
Practicing mindfulness may sound like a vague notion to you, and I agree that it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact art of being mindful. The easiest way I can remember to be more mindful is to remember Dr. Marsha Linehan’s recipe: observe, describe, and participate. First, we must observe our surroundings. Allow our senses to dictate what we see, hear, or feel. Now describe the situation. Be sure to take note of how you feel and how it appears other people are feeling. Lastly, participate. For me, oftentimes this means stopping whatever chore I’m doing and getting down on the floor to play with my children. Or perhaps it means going for a walk on your lunch break or making a phone call that you’ve been putting off. Anything that allows us to engage in life more means being mindful. It allows us to have better mental clarity and make wiser, more appropriate decisions. We could all use that during this time of year.
Another tip I like to think of is the 3-3-3 rule. Name 3 things you see, name 3 sounds you hear, and move 3 parts of your body. This practice allows us to connect our senses and redirect problematic trains of thought. I like to do this when meditation isn’t always socially acceptable.
Meditation is another great way to ease anxiety and tension. Meditation has been proven to lower risks of strokes, heart attacks, and depression. Studies of Tibetan Monks reveal that they exhibit more brain electrical impulses during meditation than any other time. I translate this fact into meditation having a “neuroprotective” benefit. The easiest way to meditate is simply close your eyes and focus on breathing. Your belly and diaphragm should resemble a balloon in that it expands when you inhale and contracts upon the exhale. Try doing this for at least a minute every day.
Sometimes we need to “retrain” our brain into feeling better. Humans have a tendency to accentuate the negative with evolution largely to blame. Our prehistoric ancestors’ worries were mainly avoiding being lunch to a predator and procreating living offspring. Those who ended up surviving had to have a keen sense of perception which was then inherited by their offspring. Over time, evolution caused our prefrontal cortex to become bigger, which is the area of brain responsible for appropriate decision making. Our worries are a little different these days, but we still approach life putting a heavy emphasis on what we may potentially lose from negative events compared to what we gain from positive events. In fact, studies show that it takes about 5 positive events to counteract the negativity of 1 bad event. Because of this fact, I like to think about 5 positive things in my life whenever I’m stressed or feeling blue. Saying a positive mantra each day can be a very highly effective way to get through some tough times.
Nutrition and Supplements
Depression and anxiety have been linked to deficiencies in these certain nutrients:
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Vitamin B12 and B6
Around this time of year, I like to specifically focus on omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D (unless you have been clinically diagnosed with deficiencies in other nutrients).
Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in seafood, especially salmon. Studies in Iceland reveal that even though this particular geographical area experiences some of the darkest, longest winters, residents report having incredibly low rates of depression. Inhabitants of Iceland consume about 5 times more seafood than Americans. Researchers have postulated that omega 3 fatty acids promote brain health and enhance mood. I advocate obtaining the majority of supplements through food sources if you’re amenable to a variety of foods. Wild-caught salmon is a great source of omega 3 fatty acids and doesn’t have the antibiotic content of farm-raised. I like to pair this with a baby spinach salad topped with walnuts, dried cranberries, carmelized pear slices, and gorgonzola. Spinach is high in folic acid which is another nutrient found to promote brain health.
Vitamin D is one of the only nutrients that I recommend supplementing with an over-the-counter product. We process vitamin D from sunlight, however our bodies aren’t exposed to as much sunlight during the winter months due to shorter days and colder weather. We also can’t really make up the amount of vitamin D we need with food sources. Considering the amount of vitamin D receptors that line our brain, it is important to make sure we are not deficient in this powerhouse nutrient. Most clinicians advocate 400-600 IUs a day, however many studies support higher doses. I personally consume 2000 IUs a day, however it is important to discuss this dose with your clinician as higher doses can cause toxicities in those with kidney or other organ dysfunction.
If you find yourself suffering from depression year round, it is important to obtain blood tests to make sure your body is not deficient in these vital nutrients.
In addition, I also recommend against overindulging in alcohol, sugar, and processed foods. These substances can play a huge part in inflammation and depression.
I always recommend AT LEAST 8 hours of sleep per night. Ayurvedic medicine suggests that the best time for the body to heal at night is between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM. Our bodies release hormones during the night that repair and nurture the mind and body.
If you have trouble falling asleep, try these important tips before using any sort of sleep aid. Avoid the use of laptops and cell phones in bed. The blue light emitted from these technological devices stops the production of melatonin, a hormone that’s released to allow our bodies to sleep. In fact, another physical reason of feeling lethargic this time of year is the extra melatonin production that occurs when it falls darker earlier.
Make sure that other unresolved issues that are causing you to lose sleep are treated. Many men and women report an inability to fall or stay asleep because of issues with pain, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or urinary incontinence. This may seem self-explanatory, but sleep will come if the root of the problem is treated effectively. For instance, magnesium has been shown to be helpful in restless leg syndrome.
An herbal tea containing chamomile or valerian root may be helpful, as well. I particularly like chamomile as it tends to aid some of the digestive issues that accompany anxiety or tension.
Any sort of exercise is beneficial and has been shown to lower anxiety levels. While the brain accounts for only 5% of body weight, it consumes roughly 30% of oxygen demands. Since exercise increases the amount of oxygen in our bodies, it subsequently increases the amount of oxygen that is available for our brains. Walking, yoga, stretching, and light weight lifting are all great examples of getting your body moving.
Other Tips to Get Through the Holidays
Taking a few hours of your time to give back can help you keep the bigger picture in mind. Volunteering allows to shift our focus from our personal problems and be thankful for the joys and blessings that we do have.
If you know that the holidays are a particularly rough time for you, give yourself a few months to prepare accordingly. Shop for and wrap presents ahead of time. Keep on top of work and household projects, especially if you know you’ll be entertaining. Don’t be afraid to book some short-term help such as housecleaners or babysitters. Utilizing your time and resources appropriately can help see you through the holiday season unscathed.
Remember the reason for the season
The holidays tend to be a glamorous, commercialized time that often masks the real reason of why we celebrate. Remember to set time aside for spirituality and reflection. It is ok to be upset about regrets or missed opportunities, but remember that January starts a new year. It is never too late to make changes or move forward.
Remember, depression and anxiety can occur all throughout the year and tend to be highly personalized issues. We all have different genes, brain chemistries, life experiences, personalities, and tolerances that contribute to our mental health and well-being. Because of these factors, it may take a combination of therapies to truly work. If we are cognizant of the issues that contribute to holiday depression, we can make some simple lifestyle modifications to help see us through.
References and Further Reading
- “Practical Radiance: 30 Days to Brighter Living and Smarter Health” by Trisha Bogucki
- “Your Best Brain Ever” by Michael S. Sweeney
- “Mind Power” by Gary Null
- “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David D. Burns