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Coping With Depression During the Holidays
Not everyone is feeling the holiday spirit this time of year. Depression can strike anyone, even generally cheerful folks, and the stresses of the season can exacerbate existing depression.
“Holiday depression is common because people get exhausted preparing, and many feel discouraged and isolated because of family problems,” says psychologist Wyatt Fisher, PsyD. “Unfortunately, this happens around the same time of year when there’s less sunlight and people are experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).”
If you’re feeling blue, the first thing to do is figure out if it is situational, seasonal or a flare-up of a condition you’ve been dealing with. Here are some ways depression manifests:
What Is Holiday Depression Syndrome?
- Holiday depression syndrome. Many people are conditioned to want to embrace the holiday spirit but, in reality, financial and family pressures build and people feel overcommitted and overwhelmed. Holiday depression syndrome describes stress and anxiety related to many aspects of the holiday season. “Individuals may feel sadness or [be in a] depressed mood during the holiday months due to perceived pressure to spend more on gifts and unmet expectations about the holidays,” says Whitney Hawkins, LMFT. She says negative memories about holidays past may contribute to this. “Additionally, alcohol consumption often rises during the holidays, causing some to partake more than they normally would. This may contribute to family conflict, anxiety, or depressed mood.” For people in recovery and trying to stay sober, that aspect makes it all the more difficult.
- Holidays are a SAD time. Seasonal affective disorder, also known by the acronym SAD, is a recurrent major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. Those impacted begin to feel the effects of seasonal affective disorder when daylight levels begin to drop in autumn. As the sun sets earlier and the nights grow longer, depression sets in. It lasts through winter. The change of season may disrupt the body’s internal clock and sleep patterns and there’s also a biochemical reason for SAD: One study showed significant summer-to-winter differences in the levels of the serotonin transporter (SERT) protein. Increased SERT activity when nights grew longer signified a decreased activity of serotonin.
- Holidays can heighten preexisting conditions. Individuals who struggle with major depressive disorder may find that symptoms can intensify during this time of year. “The holiday season tends to be a reflective period for individuals and a high-pressure time for families,” says Hawkins. “The absence of certain family members, or forced quality time with other individuals, can create stress and anxiety.” The season also exacerbates loneliness and loss. Researchers have found they could clearly pinpoint when symptoms were on the rise by measuring an individual’s depressive symptoms during different cycles in the year. Through self-reporting methods, loneliness was revealed to be accentuated during the holidays, which can add to depression symptoms.
Tackle Depression Early On
Awareness of the different kinds of depression, and when they set in, can help you monitor symptoms, but always check with your physician or a qualified mental health counselor for a diagnosis and to see if adjustments to therapy and medicine are needed.
Here are other measures you can take.
- Get outdoors! People are cooped up indoors during the colder months, which adds to depression. “The sun is the best place to be when fighting holiday depression,” says Aditi Gupta Jha, MD, of JustDoc. “It’s the best source of vitamin D.” Because the body does not produce as much of that vitamin in winter, people have to make an effort to be energized by light. “Sun is a good source because it converts your body’s stores of cholesterol into this healthy vitamin,” she says. Research on farmers showed that people who are out in the sun more often have higher vitamin D levels. For those with SAD, light therapy is used to mimic sunlight by exposing people to bright light indoors.
- Move your body. Moving around physically will help fight depression. Research shows a 30-minute walk or jog around the track three times a week may be just as effective in relieving the symptoms of major depression as the standard treatment of antidepressant medications. It can also be effective in heading it off at the pass. “Go for a daily jog, sprint or even a walk,” says Gupta Jha. “It’s a sure-shot way of giving you that adrenaline rush that helps you sail through the day with happiness.” Make it fun by including music and a dance, she says. Studies reveal that regular leisure-time exercise — even just one hour a week — can also prevent depression.
- Keep your routine. Although holiday depression syndrome and seasonal affective disorder can make you want to retreat, curl up into a ball and cry, resist the desire to isolate. Take care of job responsibilities, handle chores and stay connected to friends. “Go to work and do your routine,” says Gupta Jha. Staying active can help energize you for the holiday.
- Stay within your budget. Financial woes can cause a great deal of stress. “Resist the urge to go into debt for the holidays, which will certainly compound stress and subsequent depression,” says Fisher. Set a budget for gifts, pay in cash and don’t go over that amount. You can also try having a shopping buddy who can help brainstorm about gifts and even go shopping with you to make sure you don’t overspend. Or keep it simple and within budget by ordering gift cards for loved ones.
- Be realistic and prepared for change. Give up your fantasy of a holiday that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. “Holidays are frequently stressful with all sorts of pressure,” says David Ezell, MA, MS, LPC, LMHC. With family members often geographically remote, and people having not seen each other for long stretches, coming together for the holidays is intense. It’s also a time when people make big announcements — like upcoming marriages, pregnancies, and promotions — because the family is all together. “More potentially troubling announcements — divorces, family members coming out, confessions of the loss of a job or a disclosure about a serious health concern — can further complicate an otherwise ideal picture in people’s minds,” says Ezell.
Though you may not be able to avoid every holiday depression trigger, Hawkins suggests you do your best to plan for them and make sure to include activities and friends that lift your spirits. Don’t take on more tasks or spending than you can handle and find a way to be grateful for the good parts of the season.