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Holiday Blues

Don't let the crush of the season get you down

Originally published in Mayo Clinic Health Letter, Dec. 1996

The holidays! They're supposed to be a time of warmth, happiness and excitement. And for many people, they are.

But for some, the season can be a paradox. Joyous feelings and family and religious traditions can be overshadowed by stress, fatigue and gloom––"the blues."

It's quite normal to experience a little unhappiness or frustrations during the holidays. After all, it's an emotional and busy time of year. The key is knowing how to respond to your feelings and having realistic expectations.

Strains of the season

In addition to all of the gifts, goodies, decorations and events, the holiday season can be filled with many pressures. However, contrary to popular belief, research has failed to demonstrate that suicide increases during the holidays. A recent 35-year study in Olmsted, County, Minn., (where Mayo Clinic Rochester is located) found no increase in the number of suicides before, during or after Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's or the 4th Of July.

The holiday blues, as the name implies, tend to be temporary and seasonal, as opposed to depression, which is longer lasting and may require treatment. Still, the holidays can be difficult for many people. Problems or emotions repressed during other months often tend to surface during the holidays.

Factors that commonly contribute to the holiday blues tend to fall into three major categories:

* Psychological.-You may be facing your first holiday season without your spouse or loved one. This can cause great feelings of loneliness and sadness. In addition, if you're already feeling depressed or isolated, seeing others having a good time may make the situation worse.

Family misunderstandings and conflict can also develop at this time of year. You may want your entire family to gather at your house, as they perhaps traditionally have. But they may have different plans or want you to come to their house. You may also expect too much from the holidays--that picture-perfect celebration, expensive gifts or hearing from long-lost friends--and then becoming disappointed when those expectations fall short.

* Financial-The holidays bring with them an added financial burden. You may not have as much money to buy gifts or holiday clothing this year. Or you may find you're spending more than you can afford.

* Physical-The strain of shopping, attending social gatherings and baking holiday goodies can make you tense or fatigued. Too much food and drink during the holidays can also cause weight gain, which can be especially frustrating if you're trying to lose weight.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

It has been long known that sunlight, as it peeks and ebbs over the year, affects many animals' seasonal activities, such as hibernation and reproductive cycles. Apparently, humans are no exception. Researchers have tied SAD to melatonin, a sleep-related hormone that the human pineal gland produces and releases in the dark. Production of the hormone seems particularly active during winter, when the days are shorter and darker. Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

The symptoms for SAD are rather specific to avoid misdiagnosis for other depressive disorders:

* Regularly occurring symptoms of depression (sad, anxious or "empty" moods; decreased energy and interest, etc.) during the fall/winter months of at least three different years-two of them consecutively.

* No other factors that could account for regular changes of mood (become unemployed every winter, etc.)

* Excessive eating or sleeping; weight gain.

Below are several ways to identify potential sources of holiday depression that can help individuals cope with the seasonal blues.

* Keep expectations for the holidays manageable by not trying to make the holiday "the best ever". Set realistic goals for yourself. Pace yourself. Organize your time. Make a list and prioritize the most important activities. Be realistic about what you can and can't do. Do not spend too much time preparing for one day (Christmas).

* Remember the holiday season does not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely; there is room for these feelings to be present, even if the person chooses not to express them.

* Let go of the past! Don't be disappointed if your holidays are not like they used to be. Life brings changes. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in it's own way.

* Do something for someone else. It's an old remedy, but it can help. Try volunteering some time to help others.

* Enjoy holiday activities that are free. Drive around and look at Christmas lights.

* Don't drink too much. Excessive drinking will only make you more depressed.

* Don't be afraid to try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not done before.

* Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you. Make new friends if you are alone during special times. Contact someone you've lost touch with.

* FIND TIME FOR YOURSELF. Don't spend all of your time providing activities for family and friends.

If you still can't seem to break those seasonal blues and need a friendly voice to listen, call the Statehouse 24-hour crisis line, 637-SAFE or South East Mental Health 24-hour line, 634-9653.