Thursday, December 20, 2007

When the holidays are not so bright

It is easy to think that everybody is deliriously happy during the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year. After all, there is plenty of cheery holiday music blaring at every turn. People are bustling about buying gifts and making cookies. Many are talking about plans with family members and friends. There seems to be a sheen of glittery anticipation on everything and everyone.

Except that for many of us, the holidays are a time of sadness, loneliness, and pain. The National Institute of Mental Heath reports that depression is a reality in the lives of 20 million Americans each year. The Institute gives the following red flags which may indicate depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
  • Increasing irritability, impatience, and/or short-temper

Depression is a serious problem that can be helped. Healthcare providers can be a first step in finding much-needed relief. For more information, check out the link to the NIMH to the right.

Some folks do not suffer from long-term depression but find that seasonal blues are common. Sometimes this can be SAD (seasonal affective disorder) which commonly is related to the increasing darkness of the winter months. Experts have an impressive toolbox of options for treating SAD, including light therapy, altering eating patterns, and even medicines. But my favorite is visiting a warm sunny beach during the winter months. Okay, so they don't specify a beach but it sounds good to me.

Others may find that the holidays themselves seem particularly difficult, perhaps related to the feeling that "everyone but me is deliriously happy at this time of year." Thus, I return to where I started. Mental Health America discusses the following reasons for what they call Holiday Depression and Stress. (See the link at the right.)

stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations, over-commercialization, financial constraints, the inability to be with one’s family and friends, and [t]he demands of shopping, parties, family reunions and house guests.

As if those weren't enough, many of us experience a let down after the holiday celebrations.

Some people are more prone to the holiday blues and blahs, including those who have experienced major life transitions recently (like relationship break-ups or divorce or other losses, geographic separation from loved ones, or changes in work or family situation).

So what can we do? Some researchers, including Ulrich Schimmack from the University of Toronto, argue that we each have a stable "set point" of happiness... that most of us will have some ups and downs but will return to that set point eventually. This would be good if I am a generally happy person with a pretty high happiness point but dismal news if I am a natural Scrooge. This set point is not set in stone, however, as Ed Deiner at the University of Illinois and his colleagues note that certain critical life events can alter our tendency ( for example, losing a loved one or a job). Other experts such as Sonja Lyubomirsky (University of California) have evidence that people can positively influence their own levels of happiness by purposefully focusing on the good things in their lives, helping others, and simply expressing gratitude.

Here are a few concrete steps to help control holiday depression.

  • Reach out by formally volunteering or informally giving of your time, energy, or resources to others. When people give, they truly receive benefits to their own wellbeing.
  • Don't focus on the past but envision a happy future. Ruminating (going over and over the same thoughts) has been linked to depression. Find a way to interrupt yourself when you start reliving regrets- get busy with something constructive.
  • Don't attempt to excessively numb yourself with alcohol, other substances, eating, or over-busyness. Find a way to allow some sad or other negative feelings to come out (for example, talk to someone about them). Don't ignore but acknowledge them and then move on.

As for me, I’m working on an argument to myself that holiday sanity requires heading to the beach to soak up some happiness along with some vitamin D…


Bill said...

Dr. Wiley, this picture definitely brings the mood up during these cold days...

Angela said...

Thanks for the comment. I do not know of any research literature on the therapeutic effects of images of warm, sunny places, but I am willing to try!