Tis’ the Season – Holiday Depression

Tom Watkins President-CEO 2013With Thanksgiving leftovers in our refrigerators and the chaos of Black Friday behind us, we are in the midst of the winter holiday season. Togetherness, generosity, and tradition surround this time of year with a glow that some of us anticipate for months beforehand. But many others find its glow shadowed by holiday stress, apathy, or sadness. Rather than a time for celebration, the holidays may be lusterless or downright dreadful to some. If you’d rather hide away than gather in cheer, seasonal depression may be to blame.
Seasonal depression can arise for many reasons. The holidays can be a stressful time. Expensive gifts, time commitments, and social pressures can add to the stress we already experience on a daily basis. In addition, winter days in Michigan are short and getting shorter. Those with day jobs can go without seeing sunlight for days at a time. This combination of stress and shortened days can impact mental health, during the time we are encouraged to have “happy holidays.” When this is the case, the phrase stings, rather than uplifts.
These symptoms have a name, and they are not uncommon. “The holidays are one of the most common periods for depression, even among those who don’t experience it at any other point in the year,” says Dr. Carmen McIntyre, Chief Medical Officer at Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. “Some people also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or “SAD,” during this time, which extends throughout the whole winter season and recurs each year for these individuals.”
If you think you may be struggling with symptoms of holiday depression or SAD, there are steps you can take to improve your wellbeing over the holidays. For one, you should know that you aren’t alone. Although the holidays are generally revered as a time of “good cheer,” a large number of people also feel lonely and stressed during the winter months. Reaching out to some of these people can help build a support system that shields you from stress.
Similarly, it is important to be realistic about what to expect from yourself over the holidays. Many compare their circumstances to the perfect images created by the media in commercials and holiday movies. Be mindful of how often you compare your finances, family, or partner to those you unrealistically see portrayed by the media.
Some people find the holidays challenging because they remind them of lost loved ones. Traditions can remind people of the way things were before, turning the holidays into a time of grief. There is no deadline on grief, but establishing new traditions, such as volunteering or cooking a new dish, can provide a new perspective and something new to look forward to each year.
If at any point during holiday celebrations – whether you’ve been cooking and cleaning all day, attended five parties in one week, or spent the entire afternoon buying your entire family gifts – it all becomes too much, give yourself permission to stop and do something for yourself. Although the holidays are about generosity, your own needs do not become less important this time of year. Neglecting your own needs in an attempt to create the perfect holiday can just put a damper on your own holiday spirit.
Finally, do not let fear prevent you from talking to a licensed therapist about what you are going through. The symptoms experienced during SAD or holiday depression can be as severe and debilitating as any other mental health condition. If you experience extreme mood changes, such as lethargy, loss of interest, or isolation, it may be time to reach out. “Many people experiencing depression do not reach out because our culture stigmatizes help-seeking, but without help, these symptoms tend to worsen,” according to Dr. McIntyre.
Similarly, if you aren’t personally experiencing holiday depression, still keep in mind that not everyone may be having “happy holidays.” If you notice that one of your friends or relatives is not acting like their usual self, take the time to reach out to them. Let them know that you are there for them, and give them a space to express their feelings. Spending time with someone, even quietly, can help buffer the loneliness many experience this time of year.
Be mindful of how your own expectations of what a “happy holiday” entails can influence your expectations of someone who is struggling. Because one source of emotional pain during the holidays can be comparing circumstances to how the holidays “should” be or have been in the past, it is important to not amplify these messages. Instead this season, send the message of, “I’m here for you.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with SAD or holiday depression, contact Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority 24-hours-a-day at 800-241-4949.
Tom Watkins is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (www.dwmha.com). He has served the residents of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. Follow Watkins on twitter @tdwatkins88

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