Holiday blues getting you down?

Letting go of high expectations for the holidays can help ease the blues that people sometimes feel at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, a local therapist advises.

Stress relief
Randy Kobienia, a clinical exercise physiologist from Rice Memorial Hospital, is pictured Thursday at the Willmar Community Center as discusses how exercise can decrease stress, anxiety and depression. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Letting go of high expectations for the holidays can help ease the blues that people sometimes feel at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, a local therapist advises.

"I do believe that we often set ourselves up for unrealistic expectations, when really Christmas is about being with the people we love," said Alan Johnson, a family therapist and licensed social worker with the Rice Institute at Rice Memorial Hospital.

Johnson was one of the speakers Thursday at a community health presentation at the Willmar Community Center.

The event, sponsored by the city of Willmar and Rice Memorial Hospital, was the first in what will be a series of health-related sessions at the Community Center next year, covering topics ranging from heart health to safe driving habits.

The holiday season looms large for Americans as a time of tradition, romanticized by images of softly falling snowflakes, happy families and presents for everyone, Johnson said.


For many people, though, the season brings soaring levels of stress, anxiety and depression, he said.

"We have to bake 12 dozen cookies. We have to send out 250 Christmas cards. We have to have the perfect tree. ... There's really a tremendous amount of pressure to get a lot of things done," he said.

The death of a family member or painful memories associated with family and the holidays can make it an especially difficult time of year, Johnson said.

Little wonder that many people become depressed as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, he said.

The onset of winter and the short hours of daylight also are a significant physical factor, depriving people of necessary sunlight and raising the risk of depression.

What can people do to cope with holiday-related blues?

Ratchet down the expectations, Johnson said. "It doesn't have to be the Hallmark greeting card. It can be what you make of it."

If the holidays are too painful, or too expensive for families who are financially struggling, consider adopting new rituals, he said.


"Challenge your beliefs that the holidays are supposed to be commercial," he said. "Don't be afraid to do Christmas differently."

Regular exercise also can go a long way toward managing the anxiety and depression that can accompany the holiday season, advises Randy Kobienia, a clinical exercise physiologist at Rice Memorial Hospital.

Although physical activity is good, exercise -- such as swimming, walking or biking for a minimum of 10 minutes a day most days of the week -- is even better, Kobienia said.

"It needs to be structured, repeatable and challenging. Physical activity does not impart that," he said.

How it works: Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the nervous system and releases endorphins that have a positive effect on mood.

For mild anxiety, moderately paced exercise has been shown to be more effective than medication, Kobienia said. People who exercise regularly also are at lower risk of depression, he said.

The biggest barrier to exercise is getting started, he said.

"If we never get into it, we don't do it," he said. "You need to find something you like to do so you'll do it often enough."

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