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Live Life Fully: Feeling sad during this joyful season?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Does it seem that everywhere you look you see images of happiness and glee? Anticipation of close family gatherings and chestnuts roasting on an open fire?

You're not exactly feeling it, though, and you don't know why. Holidays can do that to us. Internally, there are huge emotional triggers. And, externally, it's hard to sustain that level of heartfelt awe in the Folgers coffee commercials or Hallmark movies.

It's normal to feel some sadness during the holidays -- either from memories of past experiences or uncertainties about the present and future. As psychologist Mark Sichel notes, you can't expect the holidays to be just as they were when you were a child. They never are. You're not the same as when you were a child, and neither is anyone else in the family.

This time of year can definitely be challenging for those who have lost a cherished family member -- whether that's a fellow human or a furry family member. And it's particularly difficult if this is a "first."

Whether your feelings of sadness go from melancholy on one end of the spectrum to full-blown depression on the other end -- or somewhere in between -- know that you are not alone.

The experience is different for each of us. And there's no magic bullet. If you try to gloss over everything, stuff down your feelings and just put on a happy face, those feelings will rear their ugly heads in some other way. On the other hand, you don't want to totally wallow in self pity, either -- even if it seems justified.

This is really an inside job. It's so important right now to be gentle with yourself. Thinking you "should" feel this way or that you "should" take part in that activity only accelerates the problem. So, stop "shoulding" on yourself.

It's particularly important to have some anchors. Round up materials to have on hand when those holiday blues hit you. Maybe it's some inspirational reading. Or a favorite CD or movie. Taking a walk in nature or luxuriating in a hot bubble bath can work wonders.

These are effective timeout strategies that nurture your soul. And they can help you move through these periods. As a disclaimer, I must note that I'm looking at coping strategies to deal with the cyclical ups and downs of holiday periods, not chronic clinical depression.

Here are a few additional tips from the Mayo Clinic:

Acknowledge your feelings: If someone close to you has died or you can't be with loved ones, realize it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings.

Reach out: If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or social events. They can offer support and companionship.

Be realistic: The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like prior years. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to and be open to creating new ones. Recognizing a "new normal" is healthy for families going through changes.

Set aside differences: Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. And be understanding if others get distressed. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.

Just say no: Saying yes when you want to say no can leave you feeling overwhelmed and resentful. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no, remove something else from your schedule. I refer to this as "creating more bandwidth," and I'm always relieved when it occurs.

The universal cure for pulling ourselves out of the doldrums is to do something for someone else. Whether it's a random act of kindness or a deliberative act of volunteering, it always lifts our spirits when we help someone else.

My co-worker, Dick Allowatt, told me the most amazing story the other day. He and his wife, Susan, went to the movies. When they got to the ticket booth and got ready to pay for their tickets, the theater employee told them the payment had already been made. Incredulously, they asked, "What?" The explanation came that someone had "paid it forward."

Dick and Susan looked around the lobby, but they never found out about their benefactor. You can be sure it helped to brighten their holiday season, though, and to restore their faith in human kindness.

It doesn't have to be the investment of two adult movie tickets. Maybe it's an extra quarter in someone's parking meter. Or a phone call to an elderly person who may not be getting out much this time of year. How about a quick stop at a neighbor's house to drop off some cookies? Who does that anymore?

The point is to get yourself back to your heart space. It's much easier to cope when you're centered. So, rather than trying to flip a switch altogether to rid yourself of sad feelings, focus on a trigger that will get you back to neutral. Then you can build from there.

'Tis the season to be gentle with yourself.

• • •

Congratulations to my editor of the past six years, Rosalie Earle, on her retirement (or, as we like to say, "re-engagement.") You'll be greatly missed, although I'll be watching to see what you do with this next chapter in your life. Thanks for believing in me and for your encouragement and guidance over the years, Rosalie. Now, go "live life fully"!

Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301 or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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