What The Grinch Can Teach Us About Depression

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By Dr. Jami Wilder

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason
.”

Each holiday season, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch unleashes his angst-filled fury on the unsuspecting residents of Whoville in the classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Eternally bothered by their chipper approach to Christmas, the Grinch attempts to hijack the Whos’ holiday, only to be thwarted by his own emotional existential experience.

Like many cartoons, the Grinch offers us life lessons cleverly wrapped in catchy song lyrics and animation. While distracting us with things that entertain and amuse us (and don’t forget Cindy-Lou Who’s big doe eyes that make you say “Awwww”), the Grinch is teaching us a few things, including a few things about depression.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Cartoons? Depression? Those things don’t go together.”

Oh, but they do. Here are a few lessons about depression we can learn from How The Grinch Stole Christmas:

Depression Is So Much More Than Feeling Sad

“It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.”

For people who have never been depressed, it may be difficult to understand that depression is more than just feeling blue. Feeling sad, or blue, or down, may be the understatement of the century when describing depression. Sadness may be part of it for sure. Intense low mood coupled with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are hallmarks of depression. Other markers of depression include lack of interest in the things we used to enjoy, fatigue, changes in eating patterns, poor concentration, difficulty making decisions, and loss of energy. And – like the Grinch – periods of depression can come with intense irritability. After all, when you feel a pervasive sense of awful, sometimes things irritate you.

Your Mindset Matters

“But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
But, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes,
He stood there on Christmas Eve hating the Whos”

What we feel influences what we do and what we think. What we do influences what we feel and what we think. And what we think influences what we feel and what we do. Making changes to any one of those – feeling, doing, thinking – shifts the others. For example, when the Grinch chose to pay attention to the Whos response to the arrival of Christmas morning without all of the Who pudding, pop guns, pampoogas, pantookas, drum and roast beast, the way he felt began to change. The way he acted shifted. By attending to the positive connection of the community, he was able to shift how he felt.

This is not to say that you should just think your way out of depression. Quite frankly, that’s simplistic and misses the complexity of depression. For example, I am sure there were intense social and economic realities that the Grinch faced which contributed to his mood. And I have no information about his family history and genetic contributions to his mood issues. However, when we experience depression, our mindset can focus heavily on the negative, which also contributes to low mood. Mindful attention paid to things that contradict the negative can help ease some of the burden.

Cave Living is Detrimental to Your Health

“Staring down from his cave with a sour, Grinchy frown
At the warm lighted windows below in their town”

The Grinch’s choice of living space, a cave on the top of a mountain, seems like the perfect foundation of a depressed state. It’s dark and it’s isolated. Both factors may contribute to depression. Let’s look at both.

Darkness: Lack of sunlight can lead to Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is produced by our bodies when we are exposed to the sun. We have Vitamin D receptors in the areas of our brains that help regulate behavior and emotion. We take in some amount of it through our diets in foods like fatty fish, milk, and egg yolks. However, the sun is key and for those living in climates that have little sunlight through the winter months, Vitamin D deficiency is common. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression. Research is still being done to determine if the deficiency causes depression or vise versa. But it has shown a correlation and that people with depression have experienced promising results in increasing Vitamin D through supplements and through light therapy.

Isolation: For the most part, humans are social creatures. Connections to others can help stave off depression and loneliness. Like the Vitamin D relationship, isolation and depression are correlated and one may fuel the other. When we are depressed, being around others can be difficult so we isolate. The isolation makes us feel lonely increasing depressive symptoms. Conversely, being cut off from others or isolated for other reasons (conflict in families, homelessness, living far from friends) can lead to depressive symptoms.

The Grinch’s mood may have been improved by spending time with someone out in the sunshine – perhaps with his dog Max.

Animals Help Ease Depression

“So he took his dog Max, and he took some black thread.
And he tied a big horn on top of his head.”

Okay, admittedly, the Grinch was a less than stellar dog owner. But, his connection to his dog Max was one of the few things in his life that would help ease depression. We know from lots of research that our connections to our pets help reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and help facilitate social engagement. Pets offer unconditional love and promote touch, which helps to produce and release hormones that soothe us and reduce stress levels. They inspire us to keep moving even when we may not feel like it. They help create routine that can carry us through a depressive episode. Pets remind us to live and give to something larger than ourselves.

Giving To Others Promotes Our Own Happiness

“He brought everything back, all the food for the feast!
And he, he himself, the Grinch carved the roast beast!”

The Grinch may not have started out as giving but he certainly finished that way. The result: his heart grew three times. Giving to others helps expand our focus, which can become narrow when we are depressed. Benevolence and compassion spark good feelings. Giving back to others in our communities strengthens bonds and social contact. It can also inspire gratitude for what we have and for others in our lives, which can counter depression.

Gratitude is Good

“Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing without any presents at all!”

In the end, the Grinch witnessed the value in being grateful as the Whos celebrated Christmas despite having lost the trappings of the occasion. Gratitude and appreciation have been linked to increased feelings of happiness. Honoring what you have in your life and acknowledging the good can help ease the burden of the bad. To learn more about the mental health benefits of gratitude, read through our November 2013 posts.

As with most of Dr. Seuss’ works, there is great wisdom in The Grinch (not too mention, an impressive use of made-up words). What lessons have you learned from The Grinch? Comment below!

Jami Wilder, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and co-owner of Wilder Therapy and Wellness in Cranston, R.I.

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