“Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile…” chimes one of our holiday tunes.
While Christmas may conjure excitement, anticipation and warm memories from the past, this time of year can also bring forth feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness.
Some of us may have concerns about not being able to afford gifts for our family and friends. Or maybe the long lines and crowded stores have us pulling our hair out wishing the season were soon over.
These feelings of “holiday blues” often go unnoticed and are rarely discussed.
Why is it so difficult for some this time of year and not others?
A major reason for a difference in emotions is due to the feeling of not being connected to others. Good support systems built on family and friends are key for helping us all deal with life anytime of the year, but especially during the holidays.
Some people do not have friends and family around to reach out to, while others intentionally withdraw from social events. This may be done to avoid dealing with difficult, not always well-understood emotions. Losing a loved one or the memory of a loved one lost around the holidays can be especially difficult. Feelings of grief and sadness can easily resurface, as well as a sense of shame for even lamenting over the loss.
Are these “holiday blues” actually depression? Not exactly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signs of depression include; a sad mood, less of an interest in activities you once enjoyed, gaining or losing weight, overeating, being agitated easily and frequently, difficulty staying focused, sleeping excessively or difficulty sleeping, to name a few.
In extreme cases, individuals have given up all hope to the point in which they choose to take their own life, and commit suicide. A type of depression that we are more likely to see at this time of year is seasonal affective disorder, also called SAD. It is more common in the winter months than the summer, possibly a result of changes in day and sunlight one receives.
Women are typically affected more than men, starting at age 20. Both depression and SAD, which can last weeks to months, require consultation with a mental health professional, as compared to the “holiday blues” which last days to a week or two.
What about suicide? Evidence analyzed by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that suicide rates actually decrease during this time of year with an increase during the spring and summer months. Increased support and connectedness to family and friends around the holiday season potentially serves as a protective factor. Of note, African-American men have a suicide rate that is 6 times higher than African-American females.
As the holiday season unravels, be ready for a media frenzy reporting on ‘feeling blue’ during the holidays and winter, similar to this article. However, know that feelings of sadness and depression do happen at any time of the year. So here are some tips for dealing with the stress and “blues” whether holiday, seasonal, or year-round:
1) Let’s all do a better job in sharing what we are experiencing emotionally and encourage other to do the same. This means we must stop perpetuating fear and stigma when talking about mental health issues and seek professional help.
2) Stay connected with family and friends. If you sense that you are stressed and are feeling down, reach out to someone that you trust, and share what you are going through.
- To speak with someone immediately, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK and talk with someone. They can refer you to professional services and support groups in the area you live.
- You can also do an online depression self-assessment. Two things to note: This tool does not give you an official diagnosis of depression, and African Americans are known to present with depressive symptoms that are not always easily recognized.
3) Check in on your family and friends. Ask them how they are doing? Do they need any help? Pay attention for possible signs of depression.
4) Create or maintain your regular schedule of exercise. Physical activity helps boost our emotions.
5) Don’t overindulge in treats, snacks and food in general. Overeating can be a symptom of stress and/or depression.
6) Plan ahead and set realistic expectations. We tend to cram a lot into a very short period of time around the holidays.
Dr. Aletha Maybank is a Board Certified physician in both Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. You learn more about her at www.dralethamaybank.com and follow her on Twitter at @DrAlethaMaybank.