Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but for some people they are anything but jolly. Depression may occur at any time of the year, but the stress and anxiety during the months of November and December may cause even those who are usually content to experience loneliness and a lack of fulfillment.
“Holiday blues are a pretty common problem despite the fact that as a society, we see the holidays as a joyous time,” says Rakesh Jain, MD, director of psychiatric drug research at the R/D Clinical Research Center in Lake Jackson, Texas. “Many people feel depressed, which can be due to the increased stress that comes with the need to shop and the decreased time to exercise which gets put on the back burner during the holidays.”
As we enter what many people consider the happiest time of year, thousands of people will be suffering silently. Some with an ongoing battle with depression and others who suffer from seasonal depression, also known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). So if the family gatherings, the endless parties, and the shopping get you down, you’re not alone.
Despondency during the holidays can be tough, especially when feeling disconnected from the holiday spirited world. “I think a lot of people would say that the holidays are the worst time of the year,” says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many people have, or come from broken homes, and the added emphasis of “family” during the holidays can be a real trigger for them. Those suffering from depression need to be especially careful when coping with holiday stress, and those of us who are not facing this battle should learn how to recognize and ease the suffering for our loved ones who are.
While people with clinical depression should seek professional help, those with a touch of the holiday blues can try these strategies recommended by experts to assure a merry holiday and a happy new year:
- Avoid setting up unrealistic expectations for yourself such as taking on hosting responsibilities for events or trying to be the peace keeper in family conflicts. Remember no one is perfect and you can’t perfect things in an imperfect world. So, it’s ok to say no rather than putting unreasonable demands on yourself. Sometimes, tasks that seem reasonable to others are not for you, and you are not in a competition to keep up with those who can.
- Plan ahead by creating prevention routines for yourself and doing your best to follow your schedule. Set up a calendar of to do lists for positive actions for yourself. For example, schedule a time to read a favorite author, create art, write in a journal, take a nap, go on a long walk in a new area, etc.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others. Maybe now is not the time to scroll through social media seeing everyone’s perfect holiday pictures. Understand that everyone puts on their best face for these circumstances and trying to compare yourself to their world is unrealistic for anyone.
- Remember it’s ok to grieve. If you’ve suffered a loss and this season is a painful reminder of that, don’t be ashamed to grieve that loss. Feelings are a sign that you’re human and reflect where you are in your healing process.
- Don’t rob yourself of proper rest! Sleep and rest are important to everyone. Studies have proven that sleep deprivation is directly connected to depression. Do not cut back on your sleep in order to get more done during this busy season. Create a sleep schedule and stick to it.
- Keep sunshine in your life. Many times seasonal depression is not linked to holiday activity as much as it is simply a darker time of year. Humans rely on sunshine and vitamin D (provided by sunshine) to live a healthy life both physically and emotionally. You can prevent this by simply enjoying 30 minutes of sunshine outdoors each day. Take a walk before work or during your lunch break, or go to a park and sit in the sun’s rays.
- Avoid binging on food and alcohol. What feels good at the moment will have you facing regrets later on. Know your limits and stick to them at all times. In the moment binging may seem like a solution, but in actuality it creates more problems.
Most importantly, concentrate on what really matters and don’t let the static around you mix your signals! Remember, it’s ok to say no rather than over extending yourself financially, physically or emotionally. While the holiday season is a time for giving, never forget that every day is a time to take care of yourself first.
If your feelings of sadness during the holidays are accompanied by suicidal thoughts, do one of the following immediately: 1. Call 911 2. Go immediately to a hospital emergency room. 3. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Could I be Suffering from Depression?
Depression is an invisible illness that goes unrecognized because many people don’t understand the causes, effects, or symptoms. Sometimes it goes unrecognized by those who suffer the illness, and often times it goes unrecognized by others because they simply cannot relate.
Depression is a treatable medical illness involving an imbalance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and neuropeptides. It’s not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness. Just like you can’t “wish away” diabetes, heart disease, or any other physical illness, you can’t make depression go away by trying to “snap out of it.”
It’s an exasperating disease to live with because being depressed, frustrated, sleepless or numb for long periods of time is exhausting – especially when you can’t prove to anyone that you’re really sick. Many times depression is caused by hormonal imbalances, grief (death of a loved one or divorce), or situational factors (loss of a job or a move to a new city) beyond our control. No one should be ashamed of having this disease. Remember, like any other disease, treatment helps.
Here are some symptoms to help identify depression in yourself or in a loved one:
- Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Struggling with concentrating
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Overwhelming and uncontrollable negative thoughts
- Loss of appetite or significant increase in appetite
- Escalating irritability, aggression, or anger
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities previously enjoyed
- Developing an increase in alcohol consumption or reckless (acting out) behavior
- Thoughts that your life is not worth living or thoughts of death or suicide
- Fatigue, exhaustion, lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
- Inability to concentrate or make decisions
- Pessimism, indifference
- Unexplained aches and pains
If you are experiencing these symptoms you should seek professional help immediately. If you observe these symptoms in a loved one, gently encourage them to consider professional help.
If you are suffering this invisible illness, you need to know you’re not alone. Millions of people do understand your situation. It is a clinical illness that can be helped. What you are feeling may be connected to other health issues, seasons, previous life incidents and many other factors. In fact, just because you may have the symptoms of depression it does not always mean you have the illness. It is important that you seek medical attention if you think you may be suffering from depression and get a professional assessment.
For a listing of depression support groups, please visit the DBSA online.
For Family and Friends
Keep in mind that a mood disorder such as Depression is a physical, treatable illness that effects a person’s brain. It is a real illness, as real as diabetes or asthma. It is not a character flaw or personal weakness, and it is not caused by anything you or your loved one did.
A “tough love” approach is widely considered unhelpful in terms of aiding someone with depression. Here are some simple ways to reach out to someone battling depression this holiday season:
- Please Do educate yourself about your loved one’s illness, its symptoms and its treatments. Read brochures and books from DBSA and other dependable sources.
- Please Don’t ask the person to “snap out of it.” Your friend or family member can’t snap out of this illness any more than he or she could overcome diabetes, asthma, cancer or high blood pressure without treatment.
- Please Do give unconditional love and support. Offer reassurance and hope for the future.
- Please Don’t try to fix your loved one’s problems on your own. Encourage him or her to get professional help.
- Please Do have realistic expectations of your loved one. He or she can recover, but it won’t happen overnight. Be patient and keep a positive, hopeful attitude.
- Please Do take care of yourself so you are able to be there for your loved one. Find support for yourself with understanding friends or relatives, in therapy of your own, at a DBSA support group, or other support group. It is important to take care of yourself, and it is normal for you to have symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression when someone you care about is ill. It’s important for you to build your own support system of people who will listen to you and be concerned about your well-being, including friends, relatives, and possibly a doctor or therapist. You might think your problems are minor in comparison to what your loved one is coping with, but that doesn’t mean you are any less deserving of help and comfort. Take time out for yourself, and make time to do things that relax you and things you enjoy. You will be best able to support the person you care about when you are healthy, rested and relaxed.
- Please Do express your understanding and concern by acknowledging their struggles as a whole. Make helpful recommendations such as getting treatment. Arm yourself with helpful information about treatment and ways they can achieve it. Offer help if needed such as transportation and your willingness to join them if they don’t want to go alone.
What can I do to make sure my loved one gets good treatment?
Encourage your loved one to seek treatment. Explain that treatment is not personality-altering and can greatly help to relieve symptoms.
Help him or her prepare for health care provider appointments by putting together a list of questions. Offer to go along to health care appointments.
With permission, talk to your loved one’s health care provider(s) about what you can do to help.
Encourage or help your loved one to get a second opinion from another health care provider if needed.
Help him or her keep records of symptoms, treatment, progress and setbacks in a journal or Personal Calendar.
Help him or her stick with the prescribed treatment plan. Ask if you can help by giving medication reminders.
Depression may cause someone to have feelings of unbearable sadness, guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness. The person does not want to feel this way, but can’t control it. Make sure the person’s doctor knows what is happening, and ask if you can help with everyday tasks such as housekeeping, running errands, or watching children.
Help your loved one try to stick to some sort of daily routine, even if he or she would rather stay in bed.
Spend quiet time together at home if he or she does not feel like talking or going out.
Keep reminding your loved one that you are there to offer support. It can be helpful to say things like: “I’m here for you”, “I care”, “I may not understand your pain, but I can offer my support”, “You are a worthwhile person and you mean a lot to me”, “Your brain is lying to you right now, and that is part of the illness”, “Don’t give up. You can get through this.”
What to do in Crisis Situation
If you believe your loved one is at an immediate risk for suicide, do NOT leave the person alone.
In the U.S., dial 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK