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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. 

Self-Care Tips to Get You Through the Holidays


While the holiday season can be a time of connection and cheer for many, for others it can bring about additional stress and isolation. During the season of giving we often devote so much time to others that we forget to take care of ourselves. Reclaiming and incorporating time for yourself is an essential part of maintaining a healthy and balanced holiday season. Below are a few ways in which you can give to yourself this season:

  • Reflect: Throughout the year reflection is a key aspect of self-care, but moving it to the forefront is especially important during the holidays. Reflection can bring about renewal and change as you enter the new year, and for some can even bring closure. Meditation and journaling are ways in which you can reflect on what it most important during these times. Both provide emotional and physical benefits that aid in the mitigation of undesirable symptoms.
  • Rest: Another important aspect of everyday life, that is especially important during this busy time, is rest. By maintaining a routine, you allow yourself to remain recharged and refreshed during this season of rush.
  • Prioritize: In an effort to match the pace of the season, many people often find themselves playing catch up once the holidays have ended. Allow yourself time to create and stick to realistic goals, which can include scheduling and budgeting. This eliminates the burden of overspending and overexerting yourself.
  • Create: Instead of focusing on the hustle of the season, take advantage of the magic of the season by creating traditions that will last for many seasons to come.
  • Redefine: Many assume that giving requires spending. During the coming days, take time to reflect on the meaning of the holidays by redefining what it means to give. Giving your time to be in service of others is an easy and inexpensive way to lift spirits.

In keeping with the holiday season, it is important to remember that self-care is key to achieving greater health, happiness, and prosperity. As stated by Calving Coolidge, “Holidays are not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of the Holidays.”

Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago