2009-11-20 / Columnists

PHC Health Talk

Holiday Blues
Commentary by Peter A. Galvin, Md. Chief Medical Officer, Peninsula Hospital Center

The holidays will soon be upon us: for many that means partying with friends and family, sharing gifts and laughter, enjoying the sights, sounds and camaraderie of the season. But for many others, this time of the year means something very different: getting the holiday blues, which is just another way of saying "depression." For so many, the holidays bring on feelings of sadness and anxiety that are often amplified by the "good cheer" which surrounds them.

According to the National Mental Health Association, reasons for feeling blue around the holidays are numerous. They range from feelings of loneliness, fatigue resulting from all of the increased holiday activity, to financial problems and family tensions. Many experts point out that one of the worst culprits leading to holiday depression is unrealistic expectations.

At this time of the year, many people look back upon happier times; perhaps the idyllic holidays of childhood, and now they are just not able to reproduce those feelings or those circumstances. Some people have unrealistic expectations around the holiday season that things will get better or people will be nicer, or their own worlds will get better, but too often these hopes never come true, and the depression worsens.

To help reduce these heightened expectations, people need to be honest with themselves about what they can - and cannot — do or expect during the holiday season.

There are also a host of common sense solutions to keep the grump out of the season. Don't run around and overexert yourself with harried shopping and too many get-togethers to the point that you are exhausted or staying up all night to wrap presents. Getting enough rest will often help chase away feelings of discontent.

Still other factors that often contribute to feelings of gloom around the holidays are memories of loved ones who are no longer with us as well as strained family relations. And that should be obvious, since the holidays are strongly linked with family and togetherness. Today's world is often one of high divorce rates and disjointed, separated family units.

One of the best antidotes for the holiday blues is doing something for someone else. Taking the focus off of yourself and putting it on others can really make you feel better. Not only do you help others, but by doing so you add meaning to your own holiday season. When we give to those around us, even during our toughest times, we end up receiving the greatest inner peace and happiness. Lonely people often find that the pain dissolves when they in - volve themselves with others who need their companionship.

So perhaps you might consider, instead of dwelling on the past, creating traditions to bring family members closer together. These traditions don't have to be formal or elaborate. For in - stance, you and family members can visit a nursing home to help serve holiday meals, or record your own holiday celebrations and make watching the previous year's celebration an annual event.

Remember that feelings of anxiousness and depression during the holiday season are not uncommon nor should they cause undue concern. The danger point is when these "blues" become fullblown clinical depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 19 million American adults suffer from depressive illnesses. Many of these do not seek help, even though depression is a treatable condition. Some people perceive mental illness as some sort of character flaw. This perception is more common among some ethnic groups. I remember my parents often commenting that anyone who sought psychiatric care "ought to have their head examined!" The reality is that depression is no different from any other illness. And, as with any "physical" illness, you need to go to the doctor and get treated.

If you think you are suffering from the "holiday blues", your physician can certainly be of help. But also remember to use your support structure - family, friends, even co-workers. Thinking of and doing more for others will often help you get through the season. After all, that's what the holiday season is really all about anyway.

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