By: Rev. Craig Statton, CEO, Atherton

To my ears, there is nothing better than the blues.  This genre of music came out the African American experience in the deep south. The inventors were slaves, former slaves, and the descendants of slaves—sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields.  The music was meant to express more than self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun.

While much of the world will eagerly celebrate the approaching holiday season, many seniors will experience the year-end holiday season as a challenging time. This season when so many decorate their homes, make special foods, attend parties, and give gifts can also be a season of hard memories, difficult relationships, and unfulfilled hopes and dreams filled with disappointment, anxiety, and sadness. The National Institute of Mental Health says that about 20% of the American population are affected by the Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the holiday blues.  For many seniors this is only compounded by the difficulties of aging which include a larger accumulation of difficult memories and the inability to get out and see friends or attend events.  So how does one cope with these blues during this season which is upon us?  Psychologist, Lisa Firestone, offers 5 tips for coping during this season:

1) Keep Active – Dr. Firestone reminds us that cooler and darker weather can make us drowsy and discourage us from being physically active.  In the winter there is less daylight and this can have an effect on both our energy, our sleep cycles, and our mood.  One thing we can do is engage in exercise or other physical activities that release endorphins and boost our energy levels.  Studieshave shown that exercise can be a tool to fight depression, so make sure to set some time aside to get your body moving.

2) Stay on Your Own Side– Dr. Firestone reminds us to “watch what we think” during this season. So many times, self-critical thoughts tend to crop up during the holiday season and end of the year.  “Another year has gone by, and you have nothing to show for it. You are so pathetic.” Dr. Firestone writes, “These thoughts make up your ‘critical inner voice.’ This inner enemy evolves out of painful early life experiences, in which we internalized destructive attitudes. As adults, we act out these self-punishing attitudes by listening to our critical inner voice.” In the Christian tradition, one of the antidotes to this kind of thinking is “counting your blessings.” When we begin to think of what we have instead of what we don’t have; the friends we do have instead of the friends we don’t have; the positive life experiences we have had instead of the painful experiences, we counter the negative that can dominate our mind. 

3) Get to Know Your Patterns – Dr. Firestone reminds us that many times we have established patterns in our lives which lead us to destructive thinking and acting. Just being aware of the “triggers” or circumstances can give us the wisdom and strength to fight the blues. Dr. Firestone shared that “a relative of mine noticed that the anticipation of meeting his girlfriend’s parents over the holidays was weighing on him. The mere thought of facing their judgment left him full of self-critical thoughts that her parents would think he was a ‘nobody’ and wasn’t good enough for their daughter. He realized that ever since he was little, meeting new people always set off his critical inner voice. By catching on to this pattern, he was able to relax a little and stand up to these negative thoughts.

4) Choose Your “Family Time” – So many of our holiday celebrations are centered around family.  For many, family time is relaxing and joyful, but not all holiday visits are filled with warmth and affection. As Dr. Firestone says, “Time spent with our families can reactivate old dynamics and stir up old emotional reactions. Depending on where we are in our lives, seeing our families can ignite feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or anger. Little criticisms from a parent may not seem like a big deal, but they may rekindle feelings of hurt from our childhood.”  If this is true for you, choose the time you spend with your family, and don’t allow guilt to overcome healthy decisions.  In addition, make sure you spend time with the people who encourage and affirm you during this season.  As author and journalist Edna Buchanan said, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” This holiday season, seek out places that make you feel good and surround yourself with people who keep you positive.

5) Keep a Balance – Finally, Dr. Firestone reminds us that in this blessed, but busy season, balance is important.  Being willing to say, “No” may be as important as saying “Yes.” Take some time for yourself; do something that you enjoy; give a simple gift to someone you appreciate; nurture your soul with activities that affirm your core values.

During a very hard life, the slaves and sharecroppers sang the blues. The music was the antidote to their hardship.  It didn’t cure the problem, or change their circumstances; it was simply a way of expressing frustration, disappointment, and even hope during the heartache of life.  This holiday season may be difficult for you, but Dr. Firestone’s practical tips and little bit of music may make it better.  Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year!  Feliz Navidad! Shèng dàn kuài lè!