The holidays are here, and for some of us, that doesn’t always evoke merriment and visions of sugar plums. In fact, holiday depression can occur, leaving us tired, irritable and anything less than festive. To find out why–and how to overcome these blues–we talked with psychologist and author of Living With Depression Dr. Deborah Serani, a go-to expert on the subject of depression.
First of all, how would you define holiday depression?
The holiday season is not just a time for traditional festivities, good will and celebrating with loved ones. It can be a stressful and challenging time for some. If you’re feeling tired, listless, irritable, and even a bit sad instead of enjoying the merry-making, you might be in the midst of a holiday depression.
How is this different than other types of depression?
Holiday depression is different than a clinical disorder like Major Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder in that it doesn’t derail your whole world. It generally starts just after Halloween, kicks into second gear before Thanksgiving, and hauls into overdrive from Black Friday on. The blues that hit at holiday time involve just enough anxiety, exhaustion and stress to make the season feel like a grind. Then as New Year’s passes and the seasonal pressures fade, you morph back into your old self once again. Clinical depression doesn’t shake off in that same way, and tends to be more serious and debilitating.
Any idea of how many people this affects each year?
Every year I do a research pull on the numbers and can’t find ANYTHING on this. You’ll find numbers on “depression” at holiday time, “suicide” at holiday time, but the “winter blues/holiday crush” isn’t on the books yet. Makes me wonder why there isn’t science on this phenomenon. One reason could be that it’s hard to get a solid sample to participate in a study.
What are some of the most common explanations for depression around the holidays?
One of the major reasons for holiday depression is that our days in the sun are shorter. Our body clock, or circadian rhythm, begins to slow down, leaving us more prone to sluggishness and irritability. Circadian rhythm needs sunlight to adequately produce the hormone melatonin – which runs our sleep/wake cycle and well-being. Less sun, means and disruption in melatonin – and this can set off irritability, difficulty concentrating, headache and fatigue. Add some of the sugary-carb indulgences that come with Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas and you have a perfect storm for feeling more blah than rah. Now include the personality style of an individual who tends to do too much, doesn’t know their limits, or are hesitant to delegate and you end up with someone primed for holiday blues. Essentially, the biology of what goes on inside you, and the biography of how you behave will influence the onset of holiday depression.
Are there certain triggers or are people just destined to get depressed during the holidays no matter what?
For some, it may be the stress of unresolved family issues that get roused during holiday times. For others, it’s the pull and tug of trying to get it all done that pushes them into a blue mood. Maybe the socializing of the season is too much, or it’s the loneliness of not having others around to celebrate with, or the commercialism that trumps faith that tips the emotional scales downward. Realizing what your emotional and physical triggers are will help inoculate you against falling into a holiday funk. I always do a calendar check of upcoming dates that may potentially throw me as summer turns to fall. I also make sure not to over-extend myself physically. I help my patients identify these issues in their personal lives as well. Raising awareness always reduces trigger fallout.
What are some of the best ways to cope or overcome holiday depression?
Be mindful of your circadian rhythm. To keep your internal body clock working at its best, try to get some extra sunshine – be it sitting in a pool of it indoors or getting outside with a walk or run. You’ll need about 20 minutes a day to keep your body clock “on time” so you’ll feel less sluggish.
Be a healthy eater. Though the colder weather makes us crave sweets and starches, be mindful to keep protein in your diet as a balance. Lean protein doesn’t spike your sugar levels, leaving you to feel more satisfied, less irritable and tired than simple carbohydrates and sugars.
Be realistic about holiday expectations. Unrealistic expectations are the single biggest cause of holiday depression. Unrealistic hopes that everything will be perfect, and everyone will be happy leads to disappointment, frustration, and raises levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol, which will make you feel edgier and more irritable.
Be aware of toxic social situations. Family conflicts can resurface during the holiday season. Try to avoid falling into old behavioral patterns with others. 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 by having your own holiday celebration. Also, if you can dilute negative social situations at home, work or school, you will float better through the holidays.
Be a good planner. Most of our lives are already overscheduled, even before adding in holiday visits, religious events, and travel. Make plans carefully in advance and don’t be afraid to say “no” if you feel burdened or if things feel like “they’re too much.” Don’t put off shopping for food and presents – get that going early and consider online buying for even greater ease. Remember to focus on what you can control, not what’s beyond your control, and don’t be afraid to delegate what you might need help with.
Be good to yourself. You can shift your neurochemistry by simply pampering yourself. You don’t have to book a spa weekend to get the benefits. Consider fragrant baths, a hot cup of tea, a quiet moment in the car, delighting in healthy comfort foods, lighting candles and cuddling with a loved one. These sensorial things raise dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin; feel good hormones that improve mood.
Anything else you want to add about holiday depression?
Define what YOU want the holidays to be about and let that plan be your guide. When you follow what’s in your heart, and allow your mind to map it out, you give holiday depression the boot.
Dr. Deborah Serani is a go-to expert on the subject of Depression. Her interviews can be found in ABC News, Newsday, Psychology Today, The Associated Press, and affiliate radio station programs at CBS and NPR, just to name a few. She is the author of the award winning book Living with Depression by the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group.