The symptoms of post-holiday withdrawal
Shortly after Christmas, I was having lunch with some friends. One friend remarked how hectic the holiday season had become and how there didn’t seem to be enough time to slow the holidays down and take them in.
I associated the hyperactivity of the season she was describing with the manic episode of an emotional illness, called bipolar mood disorder. (You may recognize this illness by its old name of manic-depressive disorder.)
Some who suffer from a bipolar disorder experience at least one manic episode usually accompanied by a depressive episode. A manic episode is characterized by a persistent heightened mood state that is elevated, expansive or irritable. There is a decreased need for sleep, pressured speech, racing thoughts, distractibility, increased goal-directed activity, psychomotor agitation and excessive involvement in pleasurable but potentially harmful activities.
Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the underbelly of Christmas!
Now, of course, I am using a bit of poetic license here, but I would like to draw out the similarities between our culture’s way of handling the holidays and some of the symptoms of a manic illness. The symptoms for a manic episode are of course more severe than what typically gets expressed by most people during the “holiday rush.” However, mental illness is to be measured on a continuum between illness and health, and sometimes the line is very thin between the two.
What I’d like to suggest is that we are being pressured by our culture’s biases to spend less time to feel and reflect upon some major issues that Christmas or Hanukkah will bring up – such as the importance of hope, belief in mankin, and finding meaning in our suffering. These are major issues because they help us discover who we are as individuals, give us a sense of direction and find peace of mind. They are no less than the difficult questions of how to find happiness “in love and work,” to quote Sigmund Freud, the founding father of modern day psychology.
Of course, this may mean that we will ask ourselves some painful questions. But like a person suffering from mania, our culture answers this challenge with a need to escape. And escape we do. For example, at Christmas time there is an urge to spend lavishly on gifts. Indeed, unrestrained buying sprees are one of the ways a manic illness is expressed.
Another excessive involvement may be overdoing it on alcohol and drugs. The drugs like alcohol, barbiturates and opiates are tempting to a person experiencing mania because he or she can’t slow down, and this is one way to depress the central nervous system. This may also be tempting for people who feel very harried and unable to relax.
Also, the manic individual will experience a distinct period of elevated mood, more often one of irritability, although it can be an expansive or elevated one. How many of us have noticed how moods and emotions become more intense during the holidays? It seems most people have a story to tell about a family member or remember going “ballistic” during a holiday family reunion.
And what about the symptom of increased goal-directed activity? By the time all the activities of Christmas are done, such as decorating the house, baking and cooking, buying gifts, taking children to Christmas programs, visiting others, preparing for holiday parties, sending cards, cleaning for the holidays, hosting guests, etc., a person can feel like a spinning top. There is a pressure to do more, especially if one’s self-esteem and elation is dependent on how captivating they can be with their gifts and efforts.
Being admired and appreciated is what we are promised by the many holiday mass media ad campaigns. A manic-styled person is notable for his high energy, excitement, mobility and sociability. Is this not the image of a successful person portrayed by television? But it helps to remember that advertisers are the most prolific users of psychological research.
It also helps to remember that for such a manic individual there is always a crash. Then, a serious depressive episode ensues. The mania is exhausting and physically a person cannot continue escaping and ignoring what is at the source of the hyperactivity. Typically, at the root of the excitability is a fear of loss. Commonly, their histories show childhood traumatic separations with no chance to emotionally understand the loss. Manic people are afraid of attaching to someone they could love because they fear losing the person would be too devastating.
What a pity if we, like those who suffer from mania, allow the holidays to be turned into a time of frenetic activity, without understanding why we are doing so. Later, we too can suffer depression, what is commonly called “the post holiday blues,” once friends have left and the bills come in. Perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to the words of the great English author, Charles Dickens, when he wrote about Scrooge’s conversion at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” “… he knew how to keep Christmas well … May that be truly said of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”
Penn Barbosa consults for the Tahoe Forest Hospice and is a practicing psychologist (PSY18949) in Truckee.