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Your Year In Review


Over the past 4 years Spotify, a music streaming app, has featured “Spotify Wrapped—A Year in Review.” In December Spotify compiles the data of what you listened to on the app over the past year and produces a chart of your most played songs, favorite artists, and what genre of music you often frequent. I recently had the thought that we could benefit from conducting a year in review for ourselves—not just for our music taste but for our whole selves—our experiences, our emotions, and our relationships over the past year.

I took time to reflect and wrote out a variety of questions to review my experience of this year. I found that taking time to remember and reflect on this year oriented me to what has been and what has come to be in a time that feels very disorienting.

We are often inclined toward making resolutions at the end of the year. Resolutions can be exciting and hopeful. They also can be a band-aid over the hole of what we don’t have or feel like we’re missing. What if this year we embraced reflection before making resolutions? What if we acknowledged and named our experiences before we tried to change them? What if we took time to mourn the losses of this year and allow ourselves to tell the story of the loss before trying to fill it up with something else? This type of story-telling reflection can be well utilized in therapy, in fact, there is a whole style of therapy called “narrative therapy.”

Below are the questions I wrote out to spark reflection and story-telling about this year. These questions can be answered on your own, with a trusted person, or with your therapist. 

What was I expecting to happen in 2020 this time last year?

How did that go?

What was lost?

What was gained?

What words would I use to describe my personal experience this year?

How did my experience of work, school, or caregiving change this year?

What was the last “normal” event or experience I had pre-pandemic?

Who did I meet or grow closer to this year?

Who did I lose or drift away from this year?

What music or media was a companion to me this year?

What books did I read, or what books did I start and not finish?

How did my relationship to my faith change?

What has been my experience of the holidays this year?

What stories would I tell a young person about me from this year?

The answers to these questions tell a story—your story. In reviewing your answers to these questions, it is my hope that you can create space for yourself to tell the story of this year and how you managed to get through it. 

Hope for Christmas: The Psychological Meaning of the Christmas Tree


Given that the Christmas season is upon us, I felt compelled to write a short piece on the meaning of the Christmas tree. Over time, certain traditional symbols have become so commonplace that we can sometimes forget to think about their meaning or origin. Like most symbols, the Christmas tree is polysemic, which indicates that it is replete with a multitude of meanings. Given that this is the case, this article will not be an exhaustive meditation on the meaning of the Christmas tree. However, I hope that this commentary will give you something to think about during this holiday season. 

Prior to the advent of Christmas, pagans would decorate their homes with evergreen fur branches in order to remind them of the coming spring while in the midst of winter. Over time, Christians adapted this tradition, and the evergreen tree has since become the perennial symbol of Christmas. For Christians, the evergreen tree came to represent the Tree of Life that is alluded to in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, it came to represent nativity and everlasting life with God, even while surrounded by death. Unlike many other trees or forms of vegetation, evergreens maintain their needles and foliage in the wintertime, which is a reminder that life is to still be found even when mired in bleakness and death.

If you’re experiencing overwhelming darkness this holiday season, I hope that you’re able to look to the Christmas tree as a symbol of hope that light persists even amid the darkness.


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Cooper, J. (2019). The history of the Christmas tree. Why Christmas? https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/trees.shtml

What is the Blues All About?


Summer days are gone. Autumn has begun.  For many, this time of the year signals the launch of fall festivities, savory treats to indulge along with deliciously comforting fragrances that are sure to cozy you into the change in season with grace and poise – caramel apples, pumpkin spice donuts, mint hot chocolate, spearmint, eucalyptus. While this time of the year is indicative of shorter days, longer nights, and the arrival of winter. It is, for others, the start of an accompanying risk of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depressive disorder that strikes at the shifting of the seasons and is marked by changes in mood that vary from mild to severe (DSM-V., NAMI). Some may refer to it as winter depression, very different from the winter blues, as it can be debilitating and very overwhelming, shaping daily functioning, productivity, and overall wellness. Approximately five percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD (APA) during predictable months of the year.  While people commonly experience depression symptoms during the cold fall and winter months, some people experience symptoms of SAD during the warm summer months (Melrose, S).

What are the symptoms of SAD?

It is important to note that symptoms of SAD may vary across several different factors, however common symptoms of SAD include alterations in mood – such as sadness, hopelessness, numbness, irritability – furthermore, changes in sleep, appetite, energy, loss of pleasure and interest in activities once enjoyed, or in cases that are severe, suicidal ideation (APA).

Although the primary differentiating element concerning SAD symptoms is that it occurs seasonally, individuals experiencing SAD might also present with sustained depressed mood for periods greater than two weeks where there lies a propensity to develop lethargic depression versus irritability , which is why people experiencing this condition are prone to behaviors such as overeating and oversleeping.

How is it caused?

The evidence for SAD is related to the hormone, melatonin, which is discharged by the pineal gland that controls the sleep-wake cycle (Melrose, 2015). Lack of light stimulates the discharge of melatonin, grooming the body for sleep (Melrose, 2015). Simply put, as the fall and winter cold settles in, melatonin production in the body rises and people tend to be affected by this in ways that lead to increased feelings of lethargy, exhaustion, and sluggishness. 

Alternatively, researchers have found that individuals with SAD may have difficulty regulating their levels chemically, where the neurotransmitter, serotonin, is influential on mood (NAMI., Melrose, 2015). In conclusion, research also suggests the role of Vitamin D in serotonin activity where less sunlight contributes to the body’s response of less Vitamin D (Melrose, 2015).  Other factors found to increase a person’s chance of developing SAD include biological, environmental, and geographical influences. 

How is SAD treated?

SAD can be successfully treated in many ways, including counseling or talk therapy,  antidepressant medications, light therapy, Vitamin D supplementation or a combination of these.  Self-care is also an important component of treatment (APA., Melrose, 2015).  For those who experience SAD, it is important to: 

  1. Take advantage of available sunlight and monitor your body’s internal clock
  2. Get creative by tapping into your inner artist
  3. Develop healthy eating and sleep habits
  4. Exercise in the morning 
  5. Approach the cooler season with a positive attitude and reinforce it with self-affirmations
  6. Plan pleasurable, physical activities (outdoors if safe to do so) 
  7. Seek out a healthy support network through relationships
  8. Learn and practice relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, imagery, and deep breathing

References

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition

American Psychiatric Association 

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression research and treatment, 2015.

Making A Plan For A Happy Holiday


Think About It

  1. What is one thing that you’ve experienced on a past holiday that you do not want to repeat this year?
  • Drinking too much / using drugs
  • Spending the holiday alone at home and feeling lonely
  • Conflict with family or friends
  • Feeling guilty or sad that I had nothing to give
  • Feeling depressed 
  • Wanting to hurt myself or someone else

Future Brighter Holidays

2. Can you avoid what you checked this holiday and commit not to do it?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Maybe

Check one box under each category that you would like to do this holiday:

Physical

  • Eat healthy foods (substitute fruit for sweets or vegetables for chips!)
  • Get exercise (bundle up and go for a walk)
  • Drink plenty of water (limit alcohol and caffeine)
  • Get enough sleep (7-9 hours each night)
  • Practice good hygiene (get out of your pajamas and put on something nice!)

Mental

  • Make a plan: Take action and decide fun ways to spend your Holiday Season with others. 
  • Don’t fake it: embrace both good and bad feelings.
  • Create a tradition for yourself: light a candle, talk with a friend, say a prayer, sing a favorite song.
  • Tell yourself that it doesn’t have to be the “best time of the year.”

Social

  • Plan your holidays ahead of time (where will you go for the meal?)
  • Plane to be with people you enjoy.
  • Talk about your feelings. Cry, laugh. Do not try to hide your honest emotions.
  • However, if you find yourself getting angry, take 3 deep breaths and remove yourself from the situation.
  • Put some effort into seeing that someone else has a wonderful holiday. Serve at shelter. Ask if you can help set up for a dinner. Find satisfaction in doing for others.

3. Now circle just one of the things you checked above that you will commit to doing this holiday. 

I _________________________________ (your name) commit to thriving and living with less stress this Holiday Season. 

Date: ____________________________

Can you mark yes to question #1 now?

If you want to discuss this further feel free to contact Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago (312) 573-8860 or cccoc@chicagocounseling.org

*Please note if at any time you feel overwhelmed or that you may hurt yourself, please call the Northwestern Crisis Hotline at: (312) 926-8100 or 911 or go to your nearest Emergency Room. 

Strategies to Reduce Depression During the Holiday


For your physical health:

Be deliberate about what activities you choose to attend. Decide ahead of time what would benefit you the most and what is in line with your needs.

Ask for help from others. We tend to think we have to do everything, when a team effort can be more fun.

Make time to rest and rejuvenate even amidst the pressure of getting things done. This will give you more energy.

Pay attention to your eating and drinking.

 

For your emotional health:

Express your feelings in an assertive and respectful way. Say “yes” because you want to, not out of obligation or to please others.

Surrender to those things that we cannot change. Surrendering is accepting things that we cannot control which allow us not to struggle and feel more at ease.

Don’t isolate. Reach out to others if you feel lonely. If you don’t have someone to be with, volunteer to help those in need. It can be very uplifting and gratifying. Spend time with supportive people.

Spend time to reflect and grieve, if necessary. Let yourself feel. Then do something nice for yourself and socialize.

Practice mindfulness. Try to observe your internal experience, just as it is, without judgment.

 

For your spiritual health: 

Don’t compare yourself to others. You are perfect just as you are today.

Extend forgiveness.

Let go of the past. Life brings changes and each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. Look forward.

Each week, call or email a family member or friend that you have not connected with in some time.

Make a new friend and invite them for coffee.

Find time to be with God. Pray!

Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago