Depression: Do you get the "Holiday Blues" during the season that's supposed to be jolly?
What are the Holiday Blues?
Some readers may wonder why a person with no credentials in medicine or psychiatry should presume to make suggestions for anyone suffering from this malady. All I can say in my defense as the author is, "I've been there." In fact, I was there to a certain extent when I wrote this article because I'd recently lost two dear friends to cancer. Sadness has a way of creeping up on you during the holidays by making you think of things like loss.
I've also learned some things I can do that help dispel those feelings. So...while I'm no expert, I've gained the knowledge needed to pull myself out of melancholy and prevent it from growing worse. I want to share what I've learned from both personal experience and research to help the many people who suffer from depression during the holiday season. It's such a common condition that it's been given a special name.
Every year from mid-November until shortly after New Year’s Day— that period of time we refer to in the U.S. as “the holiday season”—a melancholy mood descends on literally millions of adults. The label attached to this feeling of sadness, depression and stress is the "Holiday Blues."
Why, during this annual season when everyone is supposed to be happy, merry, joyous and celebratory, do so many people feel terribly out of sorts? There are several major reasons. First, however, let’s look at the typical symptoms that accompany that mental distress we call Holiday Blues. They include, but may not be limited to:
· pervasive feelings of sadness
· insomnia or, conversely, sleeping too much
· loss of interest in people and activities usually enjoyed
· appetite changes; weight loss or gain
· feelings of guilt or anger
· “brain fog”—an inability to concentrate and make decisions
· strong desire for avoidance and becoming reclusive
· psychosomatic ailments, such as headaches or gastrointestinal upsets
Those symptoms seem familiar, don’t they? Aren’t they the same symptoms experienced by someone suffering from clinical depression? Yes, many people diagnosed with clinical depression may have all or part of these symptoms. That is why an individual should not try to “tough out” the Holiday Blues, which is, after all, a form of depression. One person’s blues may be mild and lift after the holidays end. Another individual's blues may morph into chronic and disabling depression.
It’s important that anyone suffering from the Holiday Blues recognize this type of mental distress for what it is and try some coping strategies to ease it. If these tactics don’t help, especially if there are increasing feelings of hopelessness, it’s time to reach out for professional help. Actual survival may depend on getting this help.
Why do people get the Holiday Blues?
The most common reason, probably the one affecting the most people, is grief. If you’ve lost a loved one during the previous year leading up to the holidays, or even further back, whether through death or another type of separation, feelings of sadness, depression, loss and loneliness are likely to permeate your days. When it seems that everyone else is enjoying themselves and feeling happy, you can only think of your loss, and that’s natural. Without that loss, you would be enjoying this time with your loved one. Instead, you’re faced with getting through the holidays without him or her.
The “loved one” may be a spouse, child, parent, brother, sister, or other relative. It can be a significant other. Even the loss of a dear friend causes grief that can contribute to a blue mood during this season. That loss seems magnified when everyone else is enjoying the closeness of their loved ones or anticipating their visits.
Someone mourning a loss is often overwhelmed with memories of happier times when the holidays were celebrated with the loved one who is no longer there. How do you get through this time when you dread every day...sometimes every hour....?
Allow yourself your feelings. No one can tell you how long or in what manner you should grieve. Don’t buy into the theory there is anything you “must” do during the holidays. First of all, it’s crucial to take care of yourself. Rest even if you don’t sleep well, eat healthily, exercise and don’t force yourself to do things you really don’t want to do.
If you have children, you may want to continue those family traditions that will help them during the season. Children grieve also, and they are missing Dad or Grandma even if they seem to be playing as usual. In fact, children may act out rather than talk about their grief, so it may help them if you gently say something such as, “I miss him (or her) being here with us, too,” and get them to open up about how they feel. It may help to share a happy memory from earlier times.
Reach out for help and support. It’s more than likely the people who care about you would like to be of assistance to you in some way, but they don’t know what to do. Give them the satisfaction by asking them to do something you feel you just aren’t up to this year: holiday decorating, cooking, shopping, taking the kids to a holiday event, etc.
By all means, don’t force yourself to take on more than you can handle. This is the right time to say “no” to requests for your time and energy because you don’t have them to spare. Cut yourself some slack. There will be other years and other holidays, and you may feel more like participating another time.
If you feel the need to talk about your grief, cry on a shoulder or even vent anger, call on a friend who is a good listener. It’s healthier to get your feelings out and gain some relief than to keep them bottled up inside. People may be trying to spare your feelings by not talking about your loss during this time of year. They may not be sure whether you want them to talk about it or not. A good friend is one who will be there when you need to talk, and who will listen to whatever you have to say, even if you say it repeatedly.
If you don’t have anyone to whom you would feel comfortable “letting go”, check for grief support groups in your area. Hospitals, community centers, churches, synagogues and other institutions have support groups for the bereaved. Check the Yellow Pages or ask around to find the right group for you. Other support group members will understand what you’re going through right now. You may even make new friendships that will carry over into your future.
Remember that you needn’t pretend to enjoy holiday festivities if you don’t. If you don’t feel like attending a big family reunion, politely say so and don’t go. Instead, curl up with a new book or a DVD that is not holiday-related. Try not to spend too much time alone, either. Being around people some of the time can distract your mind from the grief that threatens to overwhelm you during this season. And, if you should find yourself enjoying a holiday get-together or event, don’t feel guilty about it. It’s okay to have moments, or even hours, when you can set your grief aside and smile. That is the pathway to emotional healing.
By the way, there are other special holidays (both religious and secular), as well as various "special days or dates" that bring grief and depression out of hiding and to the fore. Being aware that you are likely to be vulnerable to "the blues" at these times may help you avoid falling down the deep, dark hole of depression. Be kind to yourself.
Other Reasons for the Holiday Blues
In movies and TV shows so prevalent this time of year, holiday celebrations center on the happy family. Advertisements and greeting cards showcase happy relatives sitting around a big table groaning with food, with everyone smiling and seemingly in good humor.
That “ideal” holiday celebration may be what you long for, but the same family dynamics active throughout the rest of the year (and reminders of the past) may be what you actually get if your family is a dysfunctional one. Since you can only be responsible for your own behavior, here are some tips to help you through the season’s encounters with your relatives.
If your childhood memories of the holidays leave a lot to be desired, it’s now possible for you to make your own better memories. Start some new traditions that are meaningful to you. Carve out space to do things you enjoy doing during the holiday season. While you can’t choose your family, you do get to select your friends. A strong support group of friends cannot be underestimated. It’s okay to give yourself permission to spend special time with your friends during the holidays, even as others are immersed in family activities.
However, when you do spend time with family members, don’t let past resentments color your feelings (or actions) in the present. Try to “let go” of your anger and animosity toward family members, for if you cling to these, they may turn inward and increase your own unhappiness, creating bitterness that will blight your life. Forgiving someone who has hurt you may be extremely difficult, but it’s the first step toward emotional health. Regardless of that old saying, forgiveness doesn’t require that you forget what happened. Just let it go so it can’t do any more harm to your life. You have the power to choose your own emotional state.
Don’t let anxiety about spending time with family be your excuse for over-indulgence in food or drink. Gaining weight, feeling ill, getting inebriated at (before, after) a family get-together or suffering a hangover will only intensify your feelings of anxiety and stress. Alcohol is a depressant that will make you feel worse after its initial effect wears off. If you drink at all, do so moderately. Drinking too much to try to blot out unhappy memories can be the first step down a long, dark road you don’t want to travel.
You don’t have any control over how your family members behave, so focus instead on your own behavior. If you can be satisfied with your own conduct in stressful circumstances, this can go a long way toward defusing your tension. Try to think of at least one good trait or action for each family member, including those who may have caused you pain in the past. If you’re thinking something good about a person, you’re less likely to cast him or her in the role of absolute villain.
Divorce and remarriage create fragmented families, with multiple family units who may expect you and your family to spend time with during the holidays. Trying to schedule visits with numerous family groups and not hurt anyone’s feelings can cause an intense amount of stress. Make these visits fit comfortably into your own plans so you can enjoy your own traditions and won’t feel resentful toward anyone.
Out of Work/Short of Money
These are tough economic times, with a high rate of unemployment and many people just barely making ends meet. No wonder so many people are dreading a holiday season fraught with expenses. How can you find the money to entertain, travel or buy gifts when you can barely put food on the table every day and keep a roof over your head? Worrying about not having a job or enough money isn’t a state of mind conducive to enjoying the so-called season of merriment.
Lower your expectations and those of your family. Financial strain that is already at a peak does not need any additional drain on the family finances, and trying to carry on as usual is not worth using credit that will be difficult (at best) or impossible (at worst) to pay after the season ends. It is tough on parents to feel they are disappointing their children; however, small children can be satisfied with inexpensive gifts with no explanation necessary. (Just watch a toddler have more fun playing with the box a toy was packed in than the toy itself!)
Teens and preteens are old enough to be brought into a family discussion of why there are financial restraints this year. Try to dwell on positives rather than negatives. There are lots of free events at this time of year, such as neighborhood parades, church musicals, and even looking at light displays around town, that the family can enjoy. Do simple things at home together, such as popping popcorn and playing cards or board games. Explain that once Dad or Mom has a new job, (or financial circumstances improve) you will eventually be able to afford things that aren’t feasible now. If you’ve allowed your older kids to know that you’re in reduced financial circumstances prior to the holiday season, this shouldn’t be too traumatic for them. Whatever you do, don’t let them put a guilt trip on you and make you spend money earmarked for necessities on extras that won’t even seem important a month or two later.
If you look around, there is always someone who is less fortunate than you, and doing something to help them can give you a sense of gratitude. The whole family can volunteer to serve at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Children can feel good about donating toys still in good condition to a collection for kids who would have nothing otherwise. Visit the elderly in a nursing home. Some elderly residents in nursing homes have no holiday visitors other than strangers who want to make a difference. There is nothing like helping ease someone else’s situation to make you feel better about your own condition.
For many people, the holiday season simply means feeling lonely. They may be singles who live far away from family and can’t travel to visit, and they miss the celebrations of their childhood. Others may be without a romantic partner and dread invitations to holiday events, such as New Year’s Eve parties, where everyone else seems to be part of a loving couple.
Although you can feel lonely even when surrounded by people, you’re less likely to feel that way when you share common interests with others. Try to broaden your circle of friends, including other singles, who enjoy the things you enjoy. This is especially important when you live far from your family. It may be too late for this suggestion to help right now, but you can get a jump start on next year’s holiday season. Good friends can become as close as family, and you needn’t be lonely when you’re with compatible people. Work at putting more time into your social life to strengthen friendships. It’s worth it.
One year I transferred to a new job in a state far from my family and wasn’t able to visit them that Thanksgiving. My boss and his wife invited me and several other people to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. It was a convivial occasion, and I still recall with fondness being made to feel part of the group, as well as the sing-along we had after the meal with everyone joining in the fun.
Interaction with pets can make your holidays happier. Spending time with a loving pet is proven to reduce tension and depression. That's why so many therapy dogs make visits to hospitals and nursing homes during the holiday season--to bring smiles to the faces of patients and residents who might otherwise feel sad. Dress your pet in something festive--even if it's only a jingle bell on the collar--and the sight (or sound) may make you smile and feel more lighthearted. My dog has her own Christmas stocking for the fireplace mantle, which is filled with treats, toys and (the practical gift) a new tube of doggy toothpaste!
Emotional distress after the holidays is usually the result of unrealistic expectations. When the holidays don’t live up to what you hoped for, this can trigger a feeling of anticlimax and post-holiday blues that last beyond New Year’s Day. If you gained weight from too much holiday indulgence or find yourself in debt because you spent more than you could afford, these factors will only add to your feelings of post-holiday depression.
Here is one type of Holiday Blues that you can avoid if you recognize beforehand that you’re at risk. Set realistic objectives and make healthy choices for yourself, including achievable resolutions. Get enough rest and exercise. Eat and drink in a healthy, non-indulgent way. Make a budget for holiday spending, and stick to it so you don’t go into debt. Look at past holidays when you experienced a feeling of letdown afterward. Maybe there are patterns of behavior that can be changed to avoid the melancholy aftermath both now and in the future.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
This reason is sometimes overlooked as a contributor to the Holiday Blues, but Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D.—a result of fewer hours of sun during shorter days in winter months—affects the moods of many people and makes the holidays less enjoyable. Sufferers from S.A.D. should seek the help of a doctor, who may recommend phototherapy to counter the effects of less available natural sunlight.
This malady seems to affect people in northern climes the most, but parts of the southern U.S. experience a stormy season during the winter, with day after day of dark clouds and dreary rain that make one wonder if the sun will ever break through again.
Take advantage of any natural sunlight that is available, and when use bright lights indoors. These measures may help alleviate the moodiness caused by S.A.D. If not, see your doctor.
For Everyone, Everywhere
Regardless of where you live or the names of the special holidays in your part of the world, some of these same situations and coping tips may apply to you. I hope the suggestions I’ve made will be helpful to anyone prone to emotional distress for the reasons I’ve listed. It’s bad enough to feel sad at any time, but somehow it seems worse when all around you other people are celebrating, enjoying social events and parties, or the special togetherness inherent in being part of a couple. I hope that something recommended herein will prove of help to someone who needs it. That will be holiday gift enough for me.
Thanks for reading...JayeWisdom
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Puppy Girl and I sharing our first happy Christmas together - 2006
© 2010 Jaye Denman
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