HCN News & Notes

Not Happy This Holiday Season? It’s a Common Experience

SPRINGFIELD — While singer Andy Williams’ popular holiday classic proclaims “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” that just isn’t the case for everyone. Some may have recently lost a loved one, have a tight budget that makes them unable to afford the presents they really want to buy and give this year, or find that their family obligations are overwhelming.

Elvis called that scenario a “Blue Christmas,” but what’s the difference between feeling down and stressed, as opposed to being depressed?

Many people get stressed or ‘blue’ at this time of year, and that can be normal, said Dr. Stuart Anfang, medical director of Adult Outpatient Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center, who noted it is often difficult to live up to the unrealistic expectations of a ‘perfect’ holiday depicted on television shows and in all the advertising promoting a happy holiday.

“It is also harder for some people when the days get shorter and colder. We get concerned when symptoms start causing significant functional impairment, making it harder for you to function at work and at home. Sleep disturbance, loss of appetite and weight, decreased motivation and energy, daily tearfulness, thoughts to hurt yourself or wishing you were dead — these are potential signs of clinical depression,” Anfang said. “If you see these symptoms in yourself or your loved ones, that’s the time to contact a primary-care provider or seek evaluation by a mental-health professional. Depression is very treatable, and no one should suffer in silence, especially at the holidays.”

While depression can be a very real thing for some during the holidays, there is no clinical diagnosis called ‘holiday depression.’ Another misconception is that suicides rise dramatically over the holidays. In fact, suicides are actually lowest during the months leading up to December and begin to peak in April. What is true, however, is that those who are clinically depressed are at higher risk for suicide.

But depression isn’t something just adults may experience during the holidays.

“Depression is highly prevalent in adolescents and can be triggered by stress during the holiday season,” said Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair, Department of Psychiatry, Baystate Medical Center, who specializes in child psychiatry. “In addition to the many symptoms of clinical depression that adults may feel, children and adolescents may exhibit symptoms of irritability and negative behavior associated with their depression. This can often make it more difficult for their parents to recognize the suffering from the young person’s point of view.”

As for plain old stress from the holiday season — from shopping to baking and from visiting relatives to trying to make everyone happy — deep breathing will help you to focus and compose yourself.

Also, try several preventive strategies, such as eating right, reducing your caffeine or alcohol intake, participating in regular physical activity, practicing daily relaxation techniques, and getting enough sleep to help you better handle those extra stresses that may occur, especially during the holidays. It’s also important not to become a hermit, but to reach out to friends and family and share time with them.

If your spirits don’t lift after the holidays, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression brought on by shorter days of sunlight during the fall and winter months, resulting in lower serotonin levels that affect mood. SAD is highly treatable by visiting your doctor, who may prescribe light therapy, medications, or even counseling.

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