-by Alicia M. Greene, LPCC, LCADC, NCC, ICPS, Doctoral Candidate
With the holiday season upon us, it’s important to take a step back and realize, that for some, the most wonderful time of the year is also the most dangerous time of the year. Some people experience feelings of fear, regret, and even dread. There are those who have suffered the loss of a loved one and feel very much alone. There are those who spend way too much money and find themselves in sudden financial distress. Many people experience depression during the holidays, including those who have never before dealt with any form of clinical expression. The holidays are also a time of excess, a time of indulgence, a time when a large percentage of people use alcohol to “relax”, “have fun”, or to chase away “the blues”.
Alcohol flows freely at many holiday gatherings – office parties, family events, and various other social functions. What a lot of people fail to realize is that alcohol is a drug, a depressant, and as such can exacerbate the symptoms of depression that many are already feeling this time of the year. A vicious cycle is formed when alcohol and depression are coupled together, as one feeds the other, and it can lead some people to a very dark and scary place. Let’s take a moment to look at some situations that may lead to problem drinking, some ways to avoid the potentially toxic atmosphere of the holidays, and some ways to combat depression if you find yourself struggling with the symptoms. Depression can leave you feeling utterly lost and alone. Not only do you find yourself surrounded by festivities, but you are also being bombarded from every side by social media, holiday music, and even commercials that serve to constantly remind you of how happy you “should” be feeling right now. People fear the stigma of being perceived as abnormal for being depressed during what so many deem to be the happiest time of the year and thus are far less likely to reach out for the help they so desperately need. This isolation, however, just serves to fuel the flames of depression, making a bad situation even worse.
According to Dr. Judy Akin of Vanderbilt University (2013), Christmas time boasts the highest reported incidences of suicide and depression. Add alcohol to the mix and you’re left with a lethal concoction. Although drinking may bring about a temporary “escape” from feelings of depression and anxiety, the after effect is often a chemically-induced INCREASE in such feelings. Let’s take, for example, a scenario where you’re at your office holiday party. Maybe you’re a bit anxious, a bit nervous, and you decide to have a drink. Instantly you’re less inhibited, more relaxed, you feel like now you’re actually able to enjoy yourself. Then that one drink leads to another, because why not feel even better, right? And then you have another, and another, and another. The next morning you wake up with an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and dread. Everything is a blur, you can’t remember exactly what you may have said or what you may have done – did you say the wrong thing to the wrong person? Were you acting drunk or out of control in front of your co-workers or even your boss? These are just some of the anxiety driven thoughts that may plague someone following a night of heavy drinking and they may even lead to someone spending the remainder of their day beating themselves up for their behavior and what they MAY have done.
We see a sharp spike in alcohol-related deaths during the holidays. Why is that? One factor at play is that people who don’t usually drink give themselves a free pass to overindulge during the holidays. People who tend to abstain from alcohol during the rest of the year but binge at holiday parties are far more likely to drive drunk, to accidentally hurt themselves, and to put others in harm’s way. They are also more likely to suffer from acute alcohol poisoning due to having a lower tolerance than someone who drinks moderately or regularly.
Unfortunately, even moderate drinkers experience the temptation to overdrink during the holidays. Alcohol is often the focal point of most holiday functions, including work parties, dinners, and intimate social gatherings. Eggnog with alcohol, cider with alcohol, hot toddies, and coffee with Bailey’s are just a few classic drinks associated with holiday ‘cheer.’ Many feel pressured to drink at such events either to “fit in” or else to prevent making others feel uncomfortable if they choose not to partake. Partygoers also often feel they have to “keep pace” with one another, drink for drink, until gross intoxication occurs.
The issue with holiday parties is that they’re annual, thus you may find yourself caught in a yearly cycle of anxiety, overdrinking, and sinking further and further into depression. No wonder another annual tradition exists, New Year’s resolutions – promises we make to ourselves – pledges to better take care of both our minds and our bodies by changing our negative behaviors. But not today, right? Not until January 1st, right?
Giving yourself permission to treat yourself poorly for another month, another week, another day even is simply unacceptable. Overdrinking is a form of self-harm, whether you are aware of it or not, whether you’d like to admit it or not. If you’re concerned with your drinking habits, there are therapists available to help you take a look at your lifestyle and determine if there is actually an issue with your use of alcohol or not. Make a resolution today – vow to take care of yourself today.
- Be realistic. It doesn’t have to be a PERFECT holiday – is there even such a thing? Do you have to knit sweaters for everyone? No. Do you have to purchase gifts for everyone? No. Do you really need to prepare a six course meal? No. What you do need to do is set realistic goals, get organized, and pace yourself. Rather than focusing on a single day, the National Mental Health Association (2014) recommends focusing on a “holiday season of sentiments.”
- Be conciliatory. According to MayoClinic.com (MayoClinic.com), family tension may flare up during the holidays if members are “thrust together for several days.” Holidays are not the time to settle family disputes. Let it be. Discuss family problems at a later date.
- Holidays are truly some of the hardest times for those who have lost loved ones. Despite the sorrow, I urge you to savor the moment because you are alive. Surround yourself with that life – family members, friends, colorful flowers, tail-wagging dogs, purring cats, and hobbies that make you smile. Remember that every moment of life – even the painful ones – are a miracle. Relish them.
- If you’re attending a holiday party where you know alcohol is being served, try planning in advance to control your drinking. Keep yourself accountable, tell a family member or friend what your plan is and ask them for help. The more support you have, the more likely you’ll be to follow through.
- Overdrinking can be an issue any time of the year, the holidays notwithstanding. Binge drinking, even when kept to the weekends, is still extremely dangerous and a form of self-harm. If you are already struggling with depressive thoughts and feelings, such binges will only serve to sink you further and further into your depressed state.
- If you find yourself struggling with depression or problem drinking, schedule a consultation with a therapist that specializes in mental health and substance abuse. Don’t delay – the longer you deny yourself the support you need to get healthy, the harder it will be.