The holidays can be a wonderful time to get together with family and friends. However, all the preparation, obligations, and unrealistic expectations can also lead to stress and anxiety. With the season stretching from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day, it’s not uncommon to develop a touch of the blues along the way. And for those prone to depression, seasonal stressors can also trigger a depressive episode or exacerbate existing symptoms. While the holiday blues are temporary, depression is a serious illness that doesn’t disappear after the season is over. If you’re feeling down this winter, it’s important to recognize holiday pressures and understand the critical differences between temporary sadness and clinical depression.
There are many seasonal stressors that can contribute to the holiday blues or depression:
Family conflict: Holiday gatherings can put you in the same room with unpleasant relatives, making unresolved arguments and old resentments hard to avoid. It’s no wonder that many cite family get-togethers as the season’s biggest stressor.
Personal Loss: For those going through personal loss, such as divorce, caring for the terminally ill, or mourning a death, holiday celebrations can be painful reminders of the absence of a loved one.
Financial Obligations: The financial burdens of traveling or purchasing gifts can seriously tax your time and wallet.
Environmental Factors: Winter’s cold and shorter days mean people spend a lot of time cooped up indoors, which can be frustrating for many and contribute to clinical depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in others. SAD is a type of depression brought on by a change in seasons, usually in the winter months, and typically relents after the season ends.
Overindulgence: Holiday parties and inclement weather make it all too easy to stay inside and overindulge in food and drink, especially if you’re already feeling down. Alcohol’s depressant properties can compound feelings of sadness.
Overscheduling: The average American spends a whopping 42 hours on holiday activities. Over packed schedules can make you feel scattered and lead to lack of sleep, which contributes to depression and anxiety.
If you have the holiday blues or depression, you may feel sad or isolated, have trouble sleeping, lose your appetite, and take little interest or pleasure in doing things. However, those with depression also experience more self-destructive symptoms:
• Feeling down or hopeless
• Experiencing constant anxiety
• Feeling worthless, telling yourself that you're a failure or have let yourself or your family down
• Having trouble concentrating on everyday activities, such as reading or watching television
• Moving or speaking so slowly, or being so restless, that other people notice
• Having thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself
When you’re depressed, your mind is constantly overstimulated with negative self-talk, which can stunt your confidence, cloud your ability to accurately weigh consequences, and make it tough to make good choices or learn from mistakes. Because depression results from a chemical imbalance, these destructive thoughts can’t be reasoned away.
Those suffering with depression may not seek help due to shame, stigma, or the belief that they should be able to overcome it on their own--these feelings both compound a sense of failure and prevent them from getting treatment.
If you recognize some of the symptoms of depression and have experienced them for more than two weeks, please contact your health care provider. Whether you have the holiday blues, clinical depression, or SAD, your doctor can help get you the support you need to get on track to better health.
Be sure to read next week’s blog on tips to dealing with depression during the holidays.