Unless you’re superwoman fueled on shots of double expresso lattes all day, the holidays can be exhausting. The stress of earnestly trying to detangle strand after strand of white Christmas lights, finding the perfect spot for the tacky inflatable snowman, sending out dozens of greeting cards (after stressing over capturing the “perfect” family photo where you have threatened your kids to pretend not to hate each other “or else”) and fighting mobs of people at Target who are also mindlessly wandering the aisles in search of that “just what I’ve always wanted gift” (which rarely exists), can not only leave us resentful of the holidays, it can leave us feeling depressed and like it’s not such A Wonderful Life after all.
To find out just how common the holiday blues are (more than you think) and how to deal with them without totally becoming a Grinch around Christmas-time, we consulted with Dr. Deborah Serani, an author and psychologist specializing in depression. Here is what she had to say:
How common is holiday depression and how many people suffer from this? Do more women than men suffer? If so, why?
It’s important for readers to know that Holiday Depression and Clinical Depression are two different things. Holiday Depression is generally defined as a type of stress response to the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Clinical Depression is a serious disorder of mood, with symptoms actually DECREASING during the holiday season. Research shows that Holiday Depression WORSENS as Thanksgiving approaches and eases once New Years crowns the beginning of the next calendar year. And as for who suffers more? The research says women do more than men, because women juggle more at holiday time.
What are the main causes of depression around the holidays?
Holiday depression results from a variety of external stressors. The high octane momentum we take on-often right after Halloween, makes us physically and emotionally weary. Then there’s the strain that arises from family togetherness or work-related social events. The worry about past conflicts or let-downs adds to the depressive mix, as does the financial concern about paying the piper when the bills roll in. These external issues create internal problems for us. The stress that comes from our outside lives increases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline which leave us feeling burned out, irritable, fatigued and overwhelmed. It’s a bit of a vicious circle, but if you know what to look for, you can nip holiday depression before it looms into something more serious.
Are there certain “triggers” that people can avoid helping stave off depression or are certain people just predisposed to it?
All of us are predisposed to triggers. The trick here is to know what sets you off. For example, for some it’s conflict, for others it’s doing too much, while many feel thwarted by something someone’s said. Once you identify what uniquely troubles you, see if you can temper the triggers on your own by diluting their power. Don’t be afraid to avoid or isolate. There’s no shame in doing so. If you can’t do this on your own, ask a trusted friend or loved one to help you negotiate the stressful events during this holiday season. For instance, I struggle with depression and find the social aspects of holiday parties particularly triggering. I never attend these events alone, and reduce the stress of it by finding the least noisy area at the party and settle in. I give myself permission to do whatever it is I need to feel comfortable – and I encourage others to do the same.
How does our family play into our depression? Should we tell family members if we are depressed?
Family plays into depression big time, especially during the holiday season. For instance, unresolved conflicts resurface or old behavioral patterns get set into motion. If you can talk openly about your depression, that’s great. But do so only if you feel you’ll be supported. If you can’t share, be creative with seating or invite people to different occasions at different times. If necessary, avoid friction altogether by taking yourself out of the social equation with your own holiday celebration.
What about trying to maintain a certain image within society and not living up to it?
Throw that notion out the window. I encourage those I work with to live by their own code. If you’re doing for others or living by someone else’s standards, you never find your own authentic voice. That can cause regret and resentment which worsens depression. So if you don’t feel festive, that’s okay. If you need to spend holidays in a quiet way, go for it. Don’t want to be part of the office Secret Santa, by all means opt out. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to feelings.
What are some natural ways to deal with holiday depression?