Creative Expression and the Holidays: Building Connections That Help and Heal
“Well, so that is that,” wrote W.H. Auden in his 1944 poem “For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” He goes on:
Now must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—
Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.
We tend to think of the holidays as time of jollity and cheer, of reunion and companionship, but we can hear in this excerpt of Auden’s poem a sense melancholy, disappointment, and isolation that haunts many of us not just when the ornaments and menorahs have been put away, but throughout the holiday season. The truth, despite what we see in television movies and hear in seasonal jingles, is that the holidays aren’t easy. For many people, from the overextended to the oft-excluded, the holidays can be a period of loneliness, stress, and emotional unease.
“It’s ironic, but many people struggle with feelings of sadness during the time of year we traditionally think of as being most festive,” said Paul Keck, M.D., Lindner Professor of Psychiatry and Behavior Neuroscience, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.  Because we are constantly bombarded by the idea that the holidays ought to be a time of warmth and happiness, we tend to bottle up feelings of anxiety and sadness, only furthering our emotional and physical isolation. And so while we do not talk about it, the holidays can be incredibly lonely, even if we are surrounded by family and friends. And let’s not forget there are many people alone during the holidays, for whom that sense of isolation can be all but crippling.
Researchers have identified a number of reasons for the so-called “holiday blues,” that hollow and disconnected feeling many of us experience amidst the twinkle lights and wrapping paper. Some of that has to do with the excesses and indulgences of the season. McGill University psychologist Dr. Michael Spevack explains: “Overeating and over drinking combined with a decreased amount of sleep is also a formula for extreme emotional swings.”  Other triggers for holiday depression and disconnection, according to the experts at the UC Davis Health System, include overscheduling, lack of exercise, and seasonal affective disorder. 
But the larger problem, research suggests, is that it is near impossible to live up to the expectations we have for the holidays. Those UC Davis researchers explain that at the root of much holiday dissatisfaction and disconnection are “unrealistic expectations about ourselves” and “unrealistic fantasies about or families.”  This is exacerbated by popular culture and media depictions of the holidays that are idealized and unattainable. According to Adam K. Anderson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, many individuals “may start to question the quality of their own relationships.” This leads people, he and others suggest, to feelings of social isolation and loneliness. And when we feel socially disconnected, we only withdraw further; it is a vicious cycle that the holiday season, with its parties and social events, only worsens.
And in terms of engaging with feelings and emotions, for anyone willing to look towards the creative side all people have, there may be some other steps we can take to help ourselves through the emotional rollercoaster of the holidays, and to better connect with others and feel better. It could be as simple as sharing something to let someone know that they are not alone: maybe a poem, or a picture, or even a baked good, all of which allow the creative to become personal and to facilitate connection.
At The Foundation of Art & Healing, we are guided by the principle that the simple act of making, sharing, or receiving something creative has benefits for mental and physical health. There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that creative arts expression can be an especially powerful tool in reducing emotional isolation for everyone involved. In helping someone else feel more connected, more whole, and more at peace during the holidays by sharing some creative piece of yourself, you are also actually protecting and healing yourself against the stressors of the season.
You don’t need to be a poet like Auden, or a painter like Rockwell, or a singer like Bing Crosby to make someone’s holiday a little bit brighter. You don’t have to say something profound about the consumerism of Christmas or our collective struggle to be present with each other in an age of smart phones and clever watches.
Just make something. Share something. Or let someone share something with you. Here at The UnLoneliness Project, we know that can sound easier said than done. So we asked creative therapies specialist Leslie Marnett, MS, CCLS, to offer some simple but effective exercises to help reduce loneliness through creative expression this holiday season, which you can find in the column to the right. Festive and fun, these exercises don’t feel like medicine, but they can help you feel better.
Creative expression can help us come together. With it, each of us has the power to help someone else be less lonely, at the holidays and all year long. When “that is that,” as Auden says, and the ornaments are put away, and the leftovers are gone, and all the relatives have returned home, we will remember, above all else, how we felt and how we made others feel. Let us, at least, feel something together by expressing ourselves. This year, for your neighbor and yourself, give the gift of UnLoneliness.
 Christmas Holiday Depression’, 18 December 2005, www.medicalnewstoday.com.