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All is Calm, All is Bright

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I have a love/hate relationship with the month of December. When I was younger, December was always my favorite month. What’s not to love? Eggnog, presents, pretty lights, carols, A Christmas Story played on repeat on TBS. And, as a bonus, my birthday is the day after Christmas, so I always had an extended holiday.

As an adult, while I still love {vegan} eggnog, buying the perfect present for the ones I love, decking the halls, and all things Christmas, the stresses and strains – emotional, mental, familial, and financial – take their toll. The pressure to make the holiday season merry and bright can also exacerbate depression and other mental illnesses.

I have struggled with depression ever since I was a teenager. Sometimes triggered by the seasons, sometimes triggered by circumstances, I never thought that depression at Christmas was possible. But one year, what seemed so unlikely became reality and my depression hit hard. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with not being able to afford to buy presents for my friends and family, let alone trying to pay rent every month. My paternal grandmother had passed several years earlier and I was still feeling the grief of losing her during a holiday that she loved so much. I was also living alone for the first time in my life and having so much solitude made me lonely and disconnected. On top of everything, I felt guilty for not feeling festive the way I thought everyone was supposed to feel.

All is Calm All is Bright

All is Calm, All is Bright – Photo by Christina Bologna

One of my favorite holiday movies is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Throughout the short film, Charlie Brown repeatedly tries to find true meaning in the holiday. At one point, he comments to his best friend, Linus, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel.” That quote hit home for me the way it never had before. It seemed that all the responsibilities of being an adult were weighing on top of me and I couldn’t breathe.

I wish I could say that I was able to find a solution for myself that year, but the reality is that I went through the whole season feeling incredibly sad and empty. I know this is not an uncommon feeling. One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, with over 60% of people with mental illness reporting the holidays makes their conditions worse. The holidays shines a spotlight on how miserable you feel when you’re “supposed” to be happy. With COVID-19 and another surge of the virus, those rates are even higher as people are more and more isolated.

When you’re in the midst of overwhelm, it’s hard to see your way through to the other side. But, when the Winter Blues start to hit, I have several tools in my toolbox that I pull out.

Get Outside (even when it’s cold).

Sitting in silence and mindfully listening to the sounds of nature regulates the nervous system and eases mental tension. It’s amazing how much activity you can notice when we start to strip away the noise of daily life – chipmunks with full cheeks storing food for the winter; birds flitting about the bare trees; the sound of leaves crunching; the wind whispering across the marsh.

The Power of No.

Even though we’re not rushing around to a multitude of holiday parties and fundraisers this year, there are still plenty of obligations we can find ourselves sucked into. Being able to know my own boundaries and say no when I need to enables me to have more un-filled time to rest and recharge.

Breathing Exercises.

Taking 30 seconds to take a few deep breaths can be the difference between panic or perseverance. Focusing on filling my lungs with air and the sound of my own heartbeat makes everything else fade to the background.

Know My Limits.

Maybe I can’t buy the fanciest presents this year. Maybe this is the year I cut my shopping list in half. Maybe I focus on spending time with my “pod” and not on material items. Maybe I reach out for help and know there is no shame in accepting it. I don’t have to buy or do all the things. I’m allowed to rest.

Stay Present.

Don’t think about all the things that need to be done, focus on what you are doing in the here and now and the everyday joy to be found.

Unplug.

Put the phone down. Close the laptop. Turn off the TV. Disconnecting from social media and technology is like a vacation for your brain. Sometimes I need to put on my favorite music and dance, or pick up that book on my nightstand table that I’ve been ignoring, or catch up on a podcast while I crochet. Maybe your brain vacation is cooking or baking; maybe it’s building something. Whatever it is, unplug and do it.

Gratitude.

I have found that the biggest game changer is gratitude. Being grateful for the things and people in my life doesn’t change any of my circumstances, but it refocuses me on the good instead of dwelling on the bad.

When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to see the good things in your life. Start with small steps. Some days, my heated blanket is the only thing I can think of to be grateful for. But, once you start, it’s amazing how much gratitude comes up. What started with a heated blanket, leads me to thinking of how much I actually have and how much I have been through to get to where I am. I think about how I have survived so much worse than this and I am resilient and strong.

You have survived so much worse and you are resilient and strong. But maybe you haven’t been through anything worse than what you’re currently going through. If that’s you, my words for you are that you are not alone. There is still light and there is still peace buried under all the fear and sadness.

Mindfulness has revolutionized my life and taught me how to breathe when I didn’t even know I was holding my breath. And being grounded has never been more necessary than this year and this December.

This year, I fully love and embrace this month with all its roller coaster of emotions because I know that no matter what, waves will crash, the sun will rise, spring will come again, and I am resilient.

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Christina
Christina Bologna
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