Beating the Holiday Blues

DEC 11, 2012

Beating the Holiday Blues

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.


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