Larry (not his real name) is feeling dejected.
It happens every year at the same time. It begins when the days grow shorter and the weather grows colder. It progresses when the trees shed their leaves and when the promise of spring feels as inaccessible as the Hawaiian beaches featured on a National Geographic TV special.
The feeling worsens as the Christmas holidays approach. Larry feels more morose as store windows portray festive holiday scenes and as TV ads promote the toys and gadgets designed to attract the attention of impressionable shoppers. He recoils as every public place is filled with the strains of Christmas carols.
What Larry is feeling is, of course, ironic. The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, yet Larry feels little seasonal cheer. He feels as if he has nothing to celebrate. And the gloom that weighs upon him causes stress, not just for Larry but for those closest to him.
Sadly enough, Larry’s emotional struggle is not unique. According to a 2008 poll conducted by the American Psychological Association, “more than eight out of 10 Americans anticipate stress during the holiday season.”
“The holidays can be a hectic time, when shopping, cooking, and party planning get added to the list of things to do,” the poll concluded. “People wonder where they will find the time and money to get everything done.”
To manage such stress, the poll’s authors wrote, many people fall into unhealthy habits such as overindulging, including overeating and drinking, combined with a tendency to be sedentary. And as any psychologist can tell you, such habits are often a compensation for – or even a cause of – depression.
“The holiday season often brings unwelcome guests – stress and depression,” says the Mayo Clinic website. “And it’s no wonder. The holidays present a dizzying array of demands.”
You’re in then you’re out, you’re up then you’re down.
At least two factors are at work here. The first is obvious: The angst caused by too many expectations and too little ability to deal with the consequences of those expectations.
Such consequences could conceivably include a lack of money to provide those you love – and yourself – with what you think is needed to enjoy a happy holiday.
Other circumstances could potentially compound the situation, of course. Family history, for example, or actual mental conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder. Genuine poverty could also play a part. Each problem might warrant specific remedies, including medication.
But before we mention remedies for Larry’s emotional state, let’s identify the second factor working against him. It’s an ailment known by the acronym SAD, which stands for seasonal affective disorder. Though SAD continues to be studied, and much about it is still being debated, most reputable mental health organizations recognize it as a type of depression, one that is related to the change in seasons.
One of those organizations is the National Institute of Mental Health. According to NIMH, the vast majority of SAD cases are tied to winter, and the symptoms include ongoing feelings of depression, a lack of energy, sleep disruption, appetite and weight changes, experiencing trouble with concentration and even having suicidal thoughts.
Causes of SAD remain unknown, though theories are typically connected with low levels of natural lighting such as limited serotonin regulation, the body’s overproduction of melatonin and lack of vitamin D. Therapies include the use of SSRIs (antidepressants), application of artificial light, adding supplemental vitamin D to the diet – and psychotherapy.
That last tool involves, according to the NIMH, “identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts along with a technique called behavioral activation,” which “seeks to help the person identify activities that are engaging and pleasurable.”
Sounds fairly clinical, right? And overly simplistic? As in, if you aren’t happy, then just imagine you are.
Yet sometimes the best answers come in the simplest-seeming packages. Which brings us to the psychological discipline known as “emotional intelligence,” a term that was popularized in a 1995 book by author Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ”).
A science writer for the New York Times, Goleman had been intrigued by the work conducted by a pair of psychologists – Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer. The duo’s research had led them, in 1990, to define emotional intelligence as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”
From the work of Salovey and Mayer, through Goleman’s book and onto the work being done by other psychological researchers and practitioners, emotional intelligence has become a popular area of study. Business in particular has adopted the practice as a means of training managers to better relate to – and inspire – the staffs they oversee.
One organization that specializes in cutting-edge research involving emotional intelligence is the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In April 2015, the Yale Center partnered with performing artist Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to form what they called the Emotion Revolution.
Formed as way of “connecting young people in safe ways and empowering them with the skills and opportunities that will inspire them to create a kinder and braver world,” the Emotion Revolution comprised a series of online interviews with high school teens.
The main purpose was to see both how teens were experiencing school and how they wanted to experience school. The ongoing plan is to provide school administrators with the tools to better help their students negotiate what for many is a difficult experience coming at a difficult time of life.
“Our goal is to create a ‘call to action’ to America’s schools to take seriously the social and emotional development of youth,” says Marc Brackett, Ph.D., the organization’s director.
Caution: rough waters ahead.
But the Center investigates more general concerns, too. In a 2014 article, two Yale Center staff members – psychologists Robin Stern and Diana Divecha – addressed the specific problems associated with holiday angst. The article’s title: “Emotional Forecasting: Preparing for the Storm of Holiday Feelings.”
“The holidays are approaching,” Stern and Divecha wrote, “and the emotions they bring can feel like sunshine – or dark clouds. But you’re not at the mercy of stormy feelings. If you include some emotional preparation in your holiday plans, you can influence them for the better.”
The stormy feelings the co-authors mention in their “emotional forecasting” constitute a wide range of potential predicaments. Some include:
Sadness – “The holidays promise a kind of warmth and connection that isn’t always in reach.”
Envy – “It can sting to watch friends go on dream vacations while you trudge to Dullsville or stay home.”
Disappointment – “Maybe your mom reacts to the gift you gave her with less glee than you’d imagined.”
Anger and bitterness – “You may find yourself taking stock during the holidays, remembering a better past or wishing you could turn back the clock.”
The key they came up with to handle such feelings embodies the central tenet of emotional intelligence: to recognize and understand the effects of such a storm of emotions. Once that’s been accomplished – no small feat – the work involves a number of steps. Among them:
Planning ahead. Example: If, say, you want to feel connected to your children, try to remember how you’ve successfully done so in the past.
Know yourself. Feeling energized? Good. But dig a little deeper. Is what you’re feeling a happy kind of energy? Or is it the angry/anxious kind?
Actions matter. Playing the right kind of music can brighten a dark mood. Reaching out to a dependable friend can help ward off loneliness.
Contain, contain, contain. The old saw about counting to 10 before responding to something is advice that applies well to emotional intelligence. As Stern and Divecha advise, “Take stock of your own feelings, be open to the other person’s words and emotions, and problem-solve with a gentle heart.”
Kent Hoffman, a Spokane therapist of long standing, understands only too well how much SAD and holiday pressures can add to the average person’s normal level of emotional pressures. He has a lot to say about the question of emotions and their tricky landscape, the complex geography of which begins in early childhood.
And he has the appropriate credentials to do so. Along with fellow psychologists Glen Cooper and Bert Powell, Hoffman co-founded Circle of Security International. COS is clinical therapeutic approach based on attachment theory, which – simply stated – involves the idea that healthy emotional development depends on a child’s ability to form a bond with at least one primary caregiver (ideally a parent).
The work that Hoffman and his partners do, therefore, is aimed at “helping parents better understand the needs of their children.” They teach COS workshops both around the U.S. and internationally in countries as diverse as Australia and Romania.
More to the point of this article, Hoffman’s contribution to emotional wellness involves a website that he created titled, simply enough, eightysevenminutes.
A multimedia experience, “eightysevenminutes” uses photos, videos and text to outline the points that Hoffman wants to stress – points, he says, he learned over the course of his long career and which can be summed up in the following quote:
“Many of us know precisely what it is to be haunted by dread and loneliness, to inhabit lives of periodic or continual desperation. Some days can be better than others. Hope happens. But each day can carry with it the hidden burden of negative certainty. We live in the presence of absence: something is almost always missing or about to go missing; wrong or about to go wrong.”
In an interview, Hoffman explained why he constructed his website, how SAD complicates our emotional responses, and how understanding why we feel the way we do can actually elevate our emotional well-being.
“I wrote ‘eightysevenminutes’ because I think it’s always helpful when we tell our less-than-successful story of how difficult life can be,” Hoffman says. “It seems that so many of us feel alone precisely because we think we’re the only one dealing with a hidden pain that so many of us are feeling.”
Understand your pain, share your story.
Hoffman’s years of practice have taught him that most people can at least partly understand the sources of the pain they feel, and that being able to share that pain with others “can make a huge difference.” That “shared experience,” he emphasizes, is “what every infant comes onto the planet needing, and that need never disappears.”
Regarding SAD, Hoffman believes that those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest tend to adopt a “this, too, shall pass” attitude toward the affliction. He stresses, “For those experiencing SAD, as well as feeling stuck in unfinished grief during the holidays, it is very important to find … someone to talk with about the pain.”
Hoffman’s research on childhood attachment, he says, emphasizes “the correlation between security and reflection.” Which means, he adds, “The more I can make sense of what’s going on – even if it’s painful – the more secure I’ll be.”
That very act of understanding our emotions, Hoffman says, is as good a way as any to handle the anxiety the holidays pose. “To be able to make sense of pain, (especially) the kind that shows up during the holidays, and share it with someone else, is the best game plan I can think of,” he says.
“This is,” Hoffman says, “a big part of what emotional intelligence is all about.”
Which is where this article began: outlining the press of emotions that the Christmas holidays can exacerbate and the many difficulties those emotions can cause. To sum up, let’s return to the Yale Center’s Stern and Divecha.
As the two researchers point out, emotional intelligence – like all good therapeutic methods – can transform personal problems into the very tools that lead to emotional healing. “The holidays can teach us to view our situations with gratitude,” they wrote, “and that’s the best possible shelter from life’s storms.”
Somebody needs to share that thought with our despondent friend Larry. With a bit of luck, maybe he’ll read it here.
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