While the holiday season may be “the most wonderful time of the year” for most people, it can initiate feelings of heartache, stress and even depression for others. Most of us are familiar with how some suffer from sadness and dread during the holidays. And some of us are familiar with the holiday blues firsthand. Most people “soldier through” the holidays and wait to feel “better.” Yet others, especially those who already experience depression, may suffer greatly. The good news is that there are ways that one can ward off holiday blues and make the holidays more tolerable.
From where do these blues originate?
Holidays may bring up memories of past years, both good and bad. Recalling past holidays that were difficult or traumatic often occurs, and these thoughts may take over during the current holidays. Yet, recalling past holidays that were merry and joyful can also lead to sadness when one compares this year to those in the past. Some may recall happy times during the holidays which they cannot recreate in the present. Looking back on either good or bad holidays may create a sense of loneliness, regret, longing, and sadness now.
For others, holidays are stressful, with family and kids all about, shopping, and cooking for many and so forth. Shopping, spending money, rushing about can leave some of us drained and lacking energy. Cooking and cleaning up after large numbers can be more than exhausting.
In recent years, I have found that clients report arguments and discord as time together highlights differences in values and politics or brings up old grudges and conflicts. More than a few dread those discussions as the holidays near and look forward to those siblings, cousins, or others leaving after the holiday.
On the opposite side of this stress are those who are alone, or feel alone and forgotten during the holidays. One does not have to be alone to feel lonely and the holidays may serve to heighten those feelings.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Holiday blues may also be triggered by a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short. SAD is a period of depression that recurs each year, most commonly beginning during the fall or winter months and resolving by springtime. Symptoms are often more severe and long lasting than holiday blues. SAD is actually a subtype of major depression, the difference been that SAD is seasonal while major depression is not.
Here are some of the symptoms of SAD:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Irritability and/or problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Tiredness or low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having trouble sleeping (insomnia) or sleeping too much
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight or appetite changes (an increase or decrease)
- thoughts of suicide.
What causes SAD?
Circadian rhythms: fewer hours of sunlight in fall and winter, which may disrupt the body’s internal clock, leading to feelings of depression.
Lowered Melatonin levels: Changes in sunlight can also disrupt melatonin production, resulting in more depressed mood.
Serotonin levels: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (chemical in the brain) that regulates mood. A drop in production, which can be caused by reduced sunlight, may play a role in SAD.
You are not alone.
Over 3 million adults suffer from depressed symptoms during the winter months. While it is normal to have some days where you feel down or sad, one should never ignore prolonged feelings of sadness or tell themselves that they should be able to “tough it out.” There are several treatment options for people who are suffering from SAD or depression around the holidays. These include light therapy, exercise, medications, and counseling.
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of depression, it is important to consult with a professional. You may start with a primary care physician, or contact a professional counselor directly. If there are thoughts of suicide, then it is critical that you obtain treatment immediately, which can be done by going to your nearest emergency room or calling 911.
What can you do to prevent stress and depression, especially during the holidays?
Prepare yourself ahead of time for what could possibly happen and have a plan “B.” If you know an estranged relative will be at the holiday gathering and you don’t get along, create a plan. If your relative gets on your nerves, walk into the other room or talk to someone else.
It’s also important to be well rested, eat well and exercise. Lean on your friends for support or participate in a formal support group.
Try to think of family gatherings as positive. Again, have a plan and be prepared. Focus on the times you spent with the loved one rather than focusing on the loss.
If you anticipate being alone, then make plans to be busy. There are many volunteer activities available to ward off loneliness. If being with others is not an option, then find fun things to do during holidays, such as renting movies. working on a project, or listening to music. Some of my clients have found that working on an extended project can help, especially if that project is one they have put off for awhile.
While it depends on the individual and set of circumstances, counseling can be very helpful for many individuals facing holiday blues and depression. It may be that you need only a couple of sessions with a counselor to figure out how you can counteract the blues and take care of yourself. You may want to schedule sessions close to or during the holidays so you are not alone. Having someone who cares, and is there for you during difficult holidays, can tide you over and even prevent those feelings of sadness and depression.
About me: I customize a therapeutic approach that best supports and addresses each of my client’s specific history, personality, needs and therapy goals. With this support and guidance, the right approach for you and a willingness to engage with curiosity and a commitment to the therapy process, I can help you develop capacity to enjoy your life rather than endure it. Feel free to call me at (540) 675-1195 if you have questions or concerns. I am happy to offer a free 30 minute consultation to see how we might work together.
Ann Baumgardner, PhD LPC. Washington Virginia