By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

The holiday season is upon us and has different meanings for us all. This time of year is promised to be all cheer and good times, yet the holidays also have the reputation for producing anxiety, depression and even suicide. For many people this time of the year is indeed the time for the Holiday Blues. How can a time that holds such promise be so fraught with unhappiness? As usual, the answer lies in our past experiences.

In childhood we each develop a set of expectations about the holidays that comes from our experiences during the many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and New Years we live through. If we have the good fortune of growing up in families that treat us well and, in which our fantasies of fancy are tickled and treated each year, our experiences leave us with the expectations and mood consistent with having a grand time.

However, if we have the misfortune of having families that experience the holiday season as a time of pressure, disappointment and unhappiness, we will learn to associate this time with emotional discomfort, despite our hopes and dreams to the contrary. At worst, the holidays are a time of dread and for some people the discomfort begins months before the actual season.

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to have difficulty giving and accepting gifts, just as they have trouble giving and accepting compliments? Some people become tense, anxious and even irritable when the time comes for the opening of the gifts. How can that be? Think back to your own childhood and remember (or imagine) being punished for your normal childhood curiosity, as you try to open a gift before its time. Further imagine that the Christmas season is plagued by rigid rules that defy natural childhood curiosity and play, and that the consequences for breaking these rules are even harsher. Finally, imagine repeating this scenario for ten years. Using these images makes it easy to understand why what becomes natural is to feel agitated, anxious or in some other way uncomfortable during a time that is supposed to be filled with joy and giving.

While the stage is set in childhood, the memories and learned responses are often held unconscious during adulthood. The result is that you may not even be aware that emotional tension is associated with The Season. The discomfort just sneaks up and takes hold, while the memories necessary to understand and change the discomfort may rest just out of conscious awareness.

This picture has a solution. The first part of it is to understand the associations you are making. When you feel yourself with growing discomfort, look backward in your memory to childhood and search for situations or times that were stressful or unpleasant during the holidays. Once you have identified some of the missing links between then and now you are ready to let go of the old associations and create new ones for yourself. As with the re-conditioning of other emotional and behavioral responses, this takes a conscious examination and repeated trials practice of the new emotions and behaviors. While this is not easy to accomplish, the effort can well make the difference between having the Holiday Blues or anxieties each year and finding joy in The Season.