The Shrinks who stole Christmas

December. 23, 1998

   'Tis the overwhelming season, say psychologists. Beware  of gift-giving, baking,
        family gatherings, decorating and Christmas carols. These aren't sources of joy but of

Trees to decorate, gifts to buy, greetings to send, cookies to bake. As most of us scurry about preparing for a colourful Christmas, the psychology industry -- the Shrinks -- are busy painting it black.

Like their forefather, The Grinch, the Shrinks look down on our frantic activities, wanting to rob us of the joy of the season. According to folkloric history, the Grinch of old stole the Christmas gifts, food and ornaments, believing them to be the cause of merriment. Modern-day Shrinks, spreading messages of woe, declare all these to be the cause of gloom. "'Tis the overwhelming season," they proclaim. "Beware of gift-giving, baking, family gatherings, decorating and even Christmas carols, for these are sources not of joy but of stress."

Whether it is their training, genetic stock or their eye for business, Shrinks find or create pathos and pathology wherever they look. For instance, the Mental Health Association of Colorado cautions that the potentially pleasant festive activities of shopping, parties, family reunions and guests can all conspire to cause depression.

Likewise, Ralph Erber, associate professor of psychology at DePaul University, warns, "Even people who ordinarily aren't normally depressed may have bouts of depression around Christmas."

There's more. According to a 1993 survey by the Children's Aid Society, mothers eager to enjoy their families having fun may actually be suffering from a "servile syndrome." Wanting to make sure everyone has a good time, they risk becoming overwhelmed with chores and end up feeling dissatisfied, inadequate and depressed.

Dr. Mark Lau, of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto, believes this excess work, and the struggle to please everyone, can leave women feeling lonely and isolated from their families.

Sources close to Shrinks say the media are complicit in causing these problems as they encourage us to aspire to enjoy ourselves by advertising that displays scenes of lavish gifts, wonderful decorations and elaborate foods.

But depression is not our only worry, it seems. A self-confessed Christmas-aholic, who sought help for her problem, managed this year to cut out her handmade chocolates. But she admits she's not yet emotionally ready to cut out Christmas preparations entirely.

As for gift-giving, well that is the worst part of Christmas, say Shrinks. From dealing with the natural "gimmees" of children to finding the "right" gift for a partner or parent, gift-giving is the ultimate source of distress.

Of course, the Shrinks have all sorts of advice on how to handle the incessant pleadings of children -- don't just say N0!, give an explanation. And, if you want to prevent Christmas morning from becoming a gift-giving orgy, spread it out over several days.

Moreover, they say that as parents we must be aware of expert opinion as to what is good and bad for children. Spice Girl dolls are bad for pre-pubescent girls and X-Files Fight the Future Series are bad for boys. Everything under the tree must be educational, cooperative and wholesome even if it offers as much excitement as the proverbial chunk of coal.

Did you know that there are five stages of gift-giving? It's true, just like the five stages of grieving and the 12 steps of recovery. Recommendations are that we aspire to stage five -- that of spiritual gift-giving where "the giver recognizes that he or she embodies loving kindness and cannot help but constantly give and receive in the oneness of the universe." No need for gifts here, just good vibrations. Unfortunately, many of us are still stuck at the immature Stage Two level where we expect to give and to receive.

If you don't know what type you are, what stage you are at or what constitutes the right gift for that special someone, then one Shrink advises not to worry, just wrap gift certificates.

Now, lest you think the Shrinks should just shove off, you might show some sympathy for their situation. It's not easy being a Shrink at Christmas time. Researchers have found a decrease in the number of therapy office visits during the days and weeks before Christmas and an increase of the same magnitude afterward. So, Shrinks warn that the post-Christmas crash is a more severe problem than the holiday blues. Naturally, with all those cancelled pre-Christmas office visits (at however much an hour), they have lots of time to tell us how awful we are going to feel and how in need we will be of their post-festive help.

Another a serious and potentially traumatic problem for Shrinks is how to deal with gifts from patients. One article in the esteemed Harvard Review of Psychiatry cautions that they should "balance the risk of missing some unexplored aspect of the patient's feelings against offending the patient by transgressing usual social conventions." Indeed, the nature of the gift is as important as the patient's history. Perhaps, in Freudian terms, this means that one cigar is phallic but a box of cigars is just a gift.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,