For most people holidays are a time of joy and being happy. The holiday season is a time when families and friends gather and celebrate the festive season. Most people look forward to the holiday season because they will be family gatherings, big dinners, exchange of gifts and a chance to reminisce about the past. Unfortunately, there are a significant number of people for whom the holiday season brings about depression, anxiety and a great deal of sadness. These people may start to feel sad, anxious, moody or irritable. Many of these individuals become socially withdrawn or isolated during the holiday season, which worsens the state of depression.
The exact number of people who develop depression during the holidays is not known, but the numbers are not minuscule. It is believed that depression during the holidays affects one in seven individuals and the depression can be mild to moderate. In rare cases, the depression can be very severe and associated with suicidal thoughts. The holiday-induced depression is not only a North American phenomenon but is seen globally and chiefly affects adults of all ages, race and culture. Of all the holidays, it is the Christmas season that brings about depression in most people.
What are the symptoms of depression?
The classic symptoms of depression include the following:
Extreme fatigue: one may gradually develop no energy and feel fatigued the whole day. Just getting out of bed may be a chore and often the fatigue worsens as the day progresses. The fatigue in some people can be so severe that is leads to time off work and/or school. Having difficulty remembering details, trouble with concentration and unable to make any decisions. Many people remain indecisive and are not able to make the simple decisions like what to wear or eat. Feelings of worthlessness, guilt and helplessness are very common. Some individuals lose all perspective of life and do not see anything good. Feelings of hopelessness are also common and may be associated with questions about whether life is worth living. Difficulty sleeping, early morning wakefulness or sleeping too much. Restless is a common feature of depression. The individual may not be able to make up his or her mind, remain dubious about many things and has an inner sense of restlessness with the thoughts. Irritability is also a feature of depression Have no interest in things which were once pleasurable including sports, sex, or hobbies Loss of appetite or overeating. In general, mild depression may be associated with overeating but when the depression is severe, the individual may skip meals. Vague pains that come and go. Many people with depression complain of muscle and joint pains. The pain is like an odd ache, dull and constant. Often this type of pain does not resolve with the usual over the counter pain medications.
Constipation and a bloated sensation may occur in some people. Feeling sad, tearful or crying may be intermittent and may come on during the day. Some people may continually cry Having suicidal thoughts. Some people with severe depression may develop suicidal ideations and unfortunately, some may complete the act. Data, however, indicate that the actual number of suicides is not very common during Christmas but suddenly increase in the post Christmas period.
Why do people develop holiday-induced depression?
Some of the reasons why people get depressed during the holidays include the following:
- Unrealistic expectations: The holidays are a season of giving and unfortunately some people cannot keep up with the societal standard of giving exotic and trendy gifts to their friends and family. Others are looking to give the perfect Christmas gift and spend endless hours searching for the ultimate gift- but unfortunately, never find one. However, many people keep up with the tradition of giving gifts and then put themselves in a severe financial strain. The internal stress to maintain a certain standard of giving gifts often leads to depression, anxiety, and misery. So it is important to set realistic goals when giving gifts; the most important thing is to have a budget.
- No family: The one universal feature about the holiday season is the family gathering. Sadly there are many people who either do not have a family in the city where they reside or have no connection to their family. This often brings a great deal of sadness. Deep down everyone wishes they had a family to spend the holiday season with, and without a family, even the best dinner may not look appealing or appetizing.
- Past tragedy: For some people, the holiday season may bring back sad memories. Someone may have lost their mother, father, sibling or best friend during the holiday season, others may have broken up or ended up divorced. When reminiscing about the past, these events often lead to sadness which may be prolonged.
- Seasonal depression: There are some people who may have a seasonal affective disorder. The cold gloomy weather often triggers depression which can be mild to moderate. However, the symptoms can be severe, sapping all energy and making one feel irritable and moody. The disorder can lead to social withdrawal, problems at work/school and even thoughts of suicide. The good thing about the seasonal affective disorder is that it can be treated at home with light therapy plus some type of psychotherapy. In severe cases, one may need a prescription antidepressant.
- Demands: Another reason for depression during the holiday season is the number of tasks and demands from friends and family. The holiday season is often spent at the malls shopping for gifts, running errands, sending out invitations, preparing the home for guests, ensuring that
everyone does have a present and so on. For some people, these holiday demands can be overwhelming, and instead of being happy, lead to frustration, anger, and extreme anxiety.
- Health: Some people with chronic health problems or those who have had an acute illness often get depressed during the holidays. For example, one may need to be in hospital following a heart attack, stroke or some type of emergent surgery. Because of the need to remain hospitalized and not be with family, this can lead to depression. Some people may have a physical handicap and not be able to enjoy the season’s festivities or outdoor activities and this can also lead to depression. No one likes to be stuck in the home alone for long periods.
So how does one combat holiday depression?
The treatment for holiday depression firstly depends on the cause. The great thing is that in most cases, holiday-induced depression can be prevented or managed with simple changes in behavior and lifestyle.
If you have been buying too many gifts and are unable to afford them, stick to a budget and be selective what events you attend. Do not be forced to buy expensive gifts that will leave you in debt. If there is a high-end party that you have been invited to but can’t afford the gift, then it is better not to go or you will go into debt and feel worse. Be realistic: One of the best ways to counter disappointments during the holiday season is to be realistic. Do not fret over small things and takes things easy. Do not feel that you are obligated to give everyone an expensive gift or attend every party. Develop a support system: For those who are alone during the holidays, developing a network of family and close friends is helpful. It is important to be with someone or at least keep in verbal in contact until the holidays are over. Do not be shy about asking for help; you will be pleasantly surprised that there are still some decent people out there who will go out of their way to make the holidays special for you. If you do not have family or friends nearby, connect with friends at the local community church or an online group with similar interests. During the holiday season, many communities encourage seniors and others living alone to come and socialize with other people, and at the same time be offered food. Exercise: The value of exercise for treatment of depression has always been underestimated; more evidence is accumulating that exercise is one of the best ways to combat many mood disorders including depression. This does not mean that you run a marathon, undertake intense aerobics or join an expensive gym; simply going out for regular walks for 1 hour every day is as good any exercise. With a brisk walk, you get to enjoy nature, lose weight, meet other walkers and it refreshes your mind. Best of all walking is free and does not require any fancy or expensive equipment. Relieve stress: For individuals who are under stress, some of the ways to relieve stress include practicing yoga, meditation, spiritualism, tai chi, and deep breathing exercises. One does not have to perform all these activities but whatever activity you select, at least be consistent and regular.
Volunteer. If you are alone for the holidays and have not been invited anywhere, the best way to enlighten your spirits and cheer up is to volunteer. Go volunteer at the local soup kitchen, create a toy drive in your community or visit sick people in the local hospital. People who volunteer often regain their self-esteem and confidence and at the same time make new friends Take a break from social media: one reason why many people get depressed during the holidays is that they see others on social media looking beautiful and having a great time- social media creates an illusion that everything is greener on the other side- most of the stuff on social media is phony and deceptive. So take a break from social media, instead go out for a walk, read a book or listen to music. Finally, get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each nite, do not attend too many parties, do not stay longer than you want and eat healthy. No matter how seductive alcohol may appear, do not rely on it to drown your mood. Alcohol may drown your sorrow for a few hours, but it also acts like a potent depressant- so avoid it. If you feel anxious about going to a party alone, take a friend along; having an ally will provide you with more comfort.
If none of the above methods help, seek help from a mental health counselor. There are two ways to manage depression and they include psychotherapy and/or use of antidepressants. In most people with severe depression, a combination of these two therapies may be required. Psychotherapy involves regular sessions spaced over 6-12 weeks. The antidepressant drugs do work but often take 2-4 weeks to fully reverse the negative mood. For those with mild to moderate depression, one may require these medications for a few months at a minimum.
Finally, no matter what activity or treatment you select to manage holiday depression, remember that this is not a one-shot deal. Depression rarely resolves in a day or two and most people start to see a difference in their mood after several weeks. But the good thing is that once the symptoms of depression resolve, you will start to feel better, energetic and look forward to a new day. For those who feel that the depression is out of control and associated with suicidal thoughts, call National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).