Feelings of sadness and depression are common during the holidays, but not inevitable. UM experts offer a variety of practical tips to help you keep the blues away
Once again the holidays are upon us, which means it’s time for festive partying with friends and family, sharing gifts and laughter — and getting depressed. That’s right. For many people, the holidays bring on feelings of sadness and anxiety that can be hard to shake.
According to the National Mental Health Association, reasons for feeling blue around the holidays are numerous. They range from fatigue — a result of all of the increased holiday activity — to financial limitations and family tensions. Experts say one of the fastest routes to holiday depression is unrealistic expectations.
“People often hold on to what they remember as an ideal holiday from years gone by, and are unable to reproduce it,” said Jill RachBeisel, M.D., director of community psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “There are also expectations around the holidays that ‘everything must be perfect’, and perfection is, of course, rarely obtainable.”
To reduce heightened expectations, Hinda Dubin, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, suggests that people be honest with themselves about what they can do during the holiday season.
“Set realistic goals,” said Dubin, who is also a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “If your holiday plans require you to run around shopping and going to parties until you are exhausted, and staying up all night to wrap presents, your plans aren’t very realistic. You need to pace yourself and get enough rest so that you won’t be grouchy and testy.”
Other factors that can contribute to feelings of sadness around the holidays are memories of deceased loved ones and strained family dynamics.
“The holidays are associated with family and togetherness,” said RachBeisel, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “In today’s world of high divorce rates and fragmented family units, stress is commonly experienced as family members attempt to find some compromise in defining shared time.”
Creating family traditions is one way to bring family members closer together, said Dubin. These traditions don’t have to be formal or elaborate. For instance, she recommends visiting a nursing home to help serve holiday meals to some of the residents, or videotaping holiday celebrations and making an annual event of watching the previous year’s celebration.
Holiday Blues vs. Serious Depression
The holidays cause many people to feel anxious and depressed in a general sense, but for some, holiday tensions can lead to full-blown clinical depression.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 19 million American adults suffer from depressive illnesses every year. Unfortunately, many people with clinical depression don’t seek help, even though depression is a treatable condition.
“Some people still look at mental illness as a character flaw,” Dubin said. “The truth is that it is no different from any other kind of illness. If your body couldn’t produce enough insulin, no one would tell you to ‘get over it’. You’d need to go to the doctor and get treated for your insulin deficiency. It is the same with mental illness.”
Symptoms of Depression
Below are a list of depressive symptoms compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health. NIMH experts suggest that you seek professional help if you experience five or more of these symptoms every day for two weeks. If you have recurring thoughts of death or suicide, you should get help immediately.
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
- Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
How to Cope
Don’t let all of the pressures of shopping, coordinating social functions, negotiating family issues and missing lost loved ones overwhelm you this holiday season. There are a number of things you can do to keep stress, anxiety and depression at bay.
One of the best antidotes for the holiday blues is doing something for someone else.
“Volunteer your time this holiday season to help others who have less than you do,” said Dubin. “Taking the focus off of yourself and putting it on others can really make you feel much better. Not only can you help other people, but doing so will add a lot more meaning to your holiday season.”
Dubin offers these additional tips to help you banish the holiday blues:
Delegate. Don’t try to do it all by yourself. People often want to help and to be involved. By breaking down tasks and doling them out to friends and family, everything becomes more manageable.
Spend Some Time Alone. Some people love the energy and exuberance of big holiday parties and activities. For others, all of it is very taxing. If you find yourself getting a little anxious, take a breather. Find a quiet spot to relax and recharge your batteries. Other people will be so caught up in what is going on that they probably won’t even miss you.
Let Go of the Past. Don’t be disappointed if your holidays aren’t like they used to be. Life brings changes. Embrace the future, and don’t dwell on the fact that the “good old days” are gone.
Don’t Drink Too Much. It is easy to overindulge around the holidays, but excessive drinking will only make you feel more depressed.
Give Yourself a Break. Don’t think in absolute terms. You aren’t the best cook in the world, or the worst. You aren’t super mom, or the most horrible mother in the world.
If despite your best efforts to remain upbeat this holiday season, you find yourself feeling down for a sustained period of time, get help. Don’t try to “tough it out” alone. There are treatment options available to you that could make a significant difference in your outlook.
(Information in this article is from the University of Maryland Medical Center)