The holidays are approaching fast. There are presents to buy, friends and relatives to see, get-togethers to plan or attend, and meals to prepare or share. No wonder many of us greet this season with a mixture of excitement and panic – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. And for anyone living with the overpowering fatigue of MS, just the thought of all this activity can be exhausting.
For some people the pressure to feel jolly, festive, social and grateful can have the opposite effect – leading to a whopping case of the holiday blues. We’ve all had them at one time or another, but MS can sometimes bring on those blues with a vengeance, particularly when MS symptoms make everything a little less fun and a little more challenging.
The shopping can be a major chore... the office celebrations start too late in the day…having people over is too stressful to even think about... people’s houses aren’t accessible…friends and family don’t really get it – they’re either trying too hard to be helpful and sympathetic (you know – those sad, worried looks that say “Oh, I’m sooo sorry”), or don’t understand the impact of MS at all (“But you look so good!”). All of these challenges can lead to feelings of loss, and a major disconnect between the way things are, the way people think they’re supposed to be at holiday time, and the way they used to be before MS came along.
It’s normal – and healthy – to grieve when things we value in our lives are lost or changed. When MS messes with people’s lives and abilities, requiring them to give up cherished activities or do them differently, they often feel as though MS is “chipping away” at them, changing the person they were into someone new and unfamiliar.
Grieving over changes and losses is a process that ebbs and flows with the ups and downs of the disease. Like all grief, it can feel very painful at times, but it generally lessens with time. And believe it or not, the grieving process is what allows people to gradually let go of the way things were yesterday and begin to think creatively about how they can make them better today.
The Role of Healthy Grieving
When getting into the holiday spirit feels like the challenge of a lifetime, it may help to think about what parts of the holiday season are most important to you – and focus your attention and energy on those. Give yourself permission to do things differently and let your family and friends in on your priority list. If buying presents for others is at the top of your list – skip the stores and jump onto the Internet. If having guests over is your passion, make it a potluck or order in the goodies. If using a mobility aid will help you conserve your energy for the fun stuff, grab it! The point is to hold onto whatever it is about the holidays that gives them meaning for you – and let go of the rest.
And now a word about depression – which is very common in MS even without the stress of the holidays. Remember I said that grief is normal and healthy? Well, depression isn’t. Depression doesn’t ebb and flow like grief; it comes and stays like an unbearable blanket of painful emptiness. As much a part of the disease process in MS as it is a reaction to its challenges, depression is a symptom of MS that deserves prompt diagnosis and treatment.
If you find that your mood has tanked, leaving you feeling sad or irritable most of every day for a few weeks, accompanied by a loss of interest in things that used to engage you, changes in your sleep patterns and/or eating habits, or thoughts about hurting yourself or suicide, let your healthcare provider know about it. Depression is very treatable. Getting a grip on your mood will make life – and the holidays – feel much easier to manage.
Diagnosing & Treating Depression
So if the holiday blues are grabbing you more than the holiday spirit, don’t hesitate to get the help you need – from family, friends, or a qualified mental health professional. And if you’ve found some good strategies to manage – and enjoy – the holidays, please share them! You can also join the conversation about surviving the holidays here.