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Mental Health: Holidays, Depression, and Navigating the Ups and Downs

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By Martha Michael

Mental Health and the Holidays

If you love a holiday rerun, you may be curling up with a hot chocolate and streaming “White Christmas” sometime during the holiday season. For many people it’s one of their best experiences of the year. However, other feelings also make a comeback over the holidays. Family dynamics and financial pressures, among other things, can bring about winter depression or temporary bouts of sadness. Taking the time to find preventative measures can help raise your spirits instead of being haunted by the ghost of Christmas past.

Let’s look at the holidays for those stuck with a Blue Christmas.

Why Are the Holidays Depressing?

Spending money, family gatherings, expectations -- these are all factors in shaping our mood during the holiday season. Times of celebration are also filled with self-reflection and awareness about loss and loneliness, according to an article on WebMD.

The experience is unique to everyone, whether you celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or other traditions. Some of the most common sources of sadness and anxiety during the holidays include:

  • Fatigue
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Financial pressure
  • Commercialization
  • Stress
  • Distance from family and friends

The other thing to watch for is post-holiday letdown. After a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving and a Currier & Ives Christmas, the euphoria of everything turning out rosy can drop off and leave you with a negative mood swing. For many people there’s also a whopping debt to follow, particularly when they blow their budget while shopping.

What Is the Most Depressing Time of the Year?

According to a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, 64 percent of individuals with mental illness say they suffer more during the holidays than any other time of year. Sometimes negative emotions are simply the result of dynamics around the holidays, not major depression. The holiday blues are temporary feelings of sadness arising at this time of year. Depending on the type of depression you’re experiencing, there are signs you can look for to manage it.

Temporary, situational anxiety or depression may cause:

  • Fatigue
  • Tenseness
  • Frustration
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness

Symptoms of clinical depression are more long-term and sometimes lead to thoughts of suicide. They typically last more than two weeks and affect function for the estimated 6.7 percent of Americans suffering from it. Symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Change in appetite
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Guilt feelings
  • Trouble concentrating

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

When the winter months approach, many people incur a mental health condition causing a significant drop in mood. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is correlated with sunlight and in most cases, symptoms start at the age of 20 or older, according to an article by Johns Hopkins Medicine.

SAD is a type of mood disorder that reappears in cycles. When days get shorter, there’s less sunlight, and it has an effect on chemicals in the brain. Darkness triggers the release of melatonin, a hormone related to sleep.

Symptom of SAD include:

  • Less interest in activities
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Drowsiness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Low energy
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Social withdrawal
  • Weight gain
  • Change in appetite
  • Headaches and other physical problems

Treatments for SAD are available throughout the country. Reach out to your chiropractor, another healthcare professional, or a mental health practitioner. Recommended treatments may include the following.

  • More exposure to sunlight
  • Light therapy using a light box
  • Psychotherapy
  • Healthy diet and exercise
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

How Can People Avoid Holiday Depression?

Depending on the nature of a person’s bout of depression, it’s a good idea to seek out remedies to lower the incidence of grief and sadness. The website for University of California, Davis Health has steps you can take to manage your emotions and stabilize what may be a familiar pattern, including a drop in mood when holiday pressures arise.

Drop the Holiday Fantasies

Memories of sugarplums and Santa Claus are pleasant mainstays from childhood, but as adults they can set you up for disappointment. Regulate the stories you tell yourself to make sure you’re also embracing the realities of holiday stress. The crazy uncle or burnt turkey may make an appearance, but you can be ready for it.

Check in With Your Emotions

Self-care is always a good idea, but when holiday stress is getting real, it’s a good time to monitor how you’re feeling and what you need to stabilize. You may need to take a break from work or get some space from a friend. Take time to relax in the midst of a busy schedule and find your favorite ways to bring the emotional temperature down.

Devise a Plan

You are the expert when it comes to the best way to effectively off-load negative emotions when you’re stressed or unhappy. Before the thick of the holiday season, set up a plan of action for those times. It may involve music, reading, calling a loved one, or another proactive measure.

Connect With Others

Loneliness is at the heart of many complaints about holiday mood swings and suicide attempts. When people gather together and experience a sense of community, they find the support they need to manage those feelings. If you don’t live near family members and friends, you can use social media to connect or find new connections via:

  • Churches
  • Meetup groups
  • Volunteer work
  • Cultural centers
  • Clubs

Suicide Prevention Resources

Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, but there are many nonprofit organizations and agencies ready to help you with any sign of mental health distress. Do not hesitate to reach out.

If you or a loved one are suffering from feelings of depression and despair with suicidal thoughts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest you call or text 988. Help is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and you will speak to a counselor for confidential crisis support.

If you feel suicidal and you served in the armed forces, you can reach the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 and pressing the number 1 when prompted.

For more information, visit 988lifeline.org. There is an option to chat with a crisis counselor on the site. You can also visit the NAMI website.

Everyone’s holiday experience varies, but for some it has little resemblance to the magical appeal of screen representations. If your mood looks more like “Scrooge” and less like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” you may be suffering from a form of seasonal depression -- or experiencing a drop in serotonin levels that affect mood regulation. Don’t ignore the symptoms, because it can turn a joyful holiday into a nightmare.

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