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Blue Christmas

Dealing with holiday stress and depression

By Maija Zummo · November 25th, 2009 · News

The holidays are a stressful time for everyone, not just moms. Whether you’re freaking out about spending your pizza delivery money on gifts for your relatives at Wal-Mart, putting your hands in a turkey hole or bringing your partner around your uncle who hates gay people, things can get real Christmas Vacation real fast.

And while fun Santa-y colors like white, red and green are frequently associated with the holiday season, it’s important to recognize that many health professionals, laymen and Christmas movie plotlines like to add “blue” to that list, as in the “holiday blues.”

“People recognize depression during the holidays because of increased stress,” says Virginia Dennis, Prevention Connection/Suicide Prevention coordinator for the Mental Health Association of Southwest Ohio. “There’s a lot of build up.”

And a majority of that build up comes from trying to satisfy a few main stressors that Dennis and institutions like the University of Maryland Medical Center suggest include family, finance, friends and physical demands.

FAMILY: Cram a few generations of varied social and political beliefs around a table, add some booze and things are going to get really tense really fast. “Bringing in family members that (you) have not always been close to can bring added stress,” says Dennis. Traveling to a relative’s home, hosting family in your own home and being out of your comfort zone and/or routine can all add to the stress of being repeatedly stuck with your family from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. But on the other end of the spectrum, going through the holidays alone without the support and love of a family can be equally as devastating.

FINANCE: Our society puts a high commercial value on the holidays, and meeting these financial expectations can be hard. Buying hot gift items, buying for everyone on your list and buying things people will actually like can really add up. The ramifications of the financial decisions you make as a gift-giver can be reflected in your bank statements for months and months to come. Debt sucks.

FRIENDS: “I think there’s always the pressure that we’re supposed to be happy and cheerful during the holidays,” Dennis says.

And part of being cheerful requires you to spread that cheer, and hostess gifts, to assorted holiday parties. The expectation to attend and throw parties for friends, in addition to your family obligations, is a huge stressor. It means more presents, more money and more smiling, even if you don’t feel like it. “There’s a lot of self medicating around the holidays,” Dennis says. And a person with “the blues” may not realize they’re doing this because “many more people are drinking and celebrating. They may not see that as a problem until after the parties are over.”

PHYSICAL DEMANDS: Just talking about all of this is exhausting. Somehow you’re expected to fit shopping, cooking, wrapping, remembering, hosting, drinking and more into your normal schedule. The stress of trying to accomplish all of these tasks can leave you feeling really run down.

“We can all get the blues,” Dennis says, “but we’re usually able to get through that period.” So when do the “holiday blues” become a real problem and transition from being just a bummer to full-blown depression?

“The reason behind the claim that depression rates and suicides rise during the holidays is that holiday cheer amplifies loneliness and hopelessness in people who have lost loved ones, or who have high expectations of renewed happiness during the holiday season, only to be disappointed,” says Debra Clancy, Chapter Chair to the Board of Directors for the Cincinnati chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

Because the symptoms of the holiday blues can mimic those of a major depressive episode, it’s important to be aware of just how down you’re feeling.“The big, big problem with depression or suicide is that 90 percent of all suicides, the person has a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death,” Dennis says. “Seventy to 80 percent of people will recover from depression but only one-third seek treatment.”

Although some researchers have found depression rates and suicides drop during the winter months and peak in the spring, according to Clancy, studies found that “suicide hotlines did receive more calls because of the stress that the holidays bring.”

“Studies have shown that people tend to be less likely to commit suicide during the holiday season, perhaps because of an increase in available emotional support,” adds Clancy, but it’s important for people who are feeling depressed to recognize their feelings and seek help whenever, not just according to the seasons or study information.

So in the spirit of WebMD and self-diagnosis, here’s a quick guide to serious symptoms to watch out for.

The DSMIV, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, lists the symptoms for depression as “having a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure” for more than two weeks.

Other symptoms include significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain; insomnia or hypersomnia; psychomotor agitation (things like pacing, wringing your hands); fatigue or loss of energy; feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt; diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness; and recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying).

So if it’s been more than two weeks and managing your holiday stressors with common sense strategies like maintaining your budget, getting enough sleep and keeping up with an exercise routine isn’t working, no one’s going to think you’re a freak if you want to get help.

“It’s OK to reach out for help,” Dennis says, “just like if you were experiencing chest pains or trouble breathing. … With depression and any other type of mental illness we need to look at that, as a society, as the same thing.” �

To Get Help

To get general mental health information, resources and referrals, contact the mental health association at 513-721-2910, the United Way at 211, or go to www.talberthouse.org and search “mental health” links. For crisis situations, call the national 24-hour suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TaLK, the local 24-hour suicide and crisis hotline at 513-281-CaRE, or the adult mobile crisis center at 513-584-8577. Find information about suicide and the survivor Outreach Program for families who have lost a loved one to suicide at www.afsp.org./cincinnati



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