No season of the year has higher expectations than the holidays. While it can be the most joyful time of the year for some people, for others — especially those who have lost a loved one — it can be stressful and sad.
There are a number of reasons why people have depression over the holidays, said Dr. Edward Manning, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and a clinical psychologist with Clinical Associates, Jackson. It can be a nostalgic time of year that brings back fond memories of family gatherings and good times. But if you have lost family members in the past year or longer, they are more missed at the time of year when families get together.
“It can also be a time when people look back over the past year and decade at the things they didn’t accomplish,” Manning said. “Add to that the general stress of trying to get ready for the holiday, shopping, planning and budgeting. Part of that is financial stress. Add in physical fatigue with the increased stress and you have a recipe for depression.”
Many people make very lofty New Year’s resolutions. But if you look at the literature, the percentage of people who follow through is “incredibly low.”
“People set a lot of unrealistic expectations for themselves,” Manning said. “If you are looking at things you haven’t accomplished, make more realistic resolutions. It is fine to take dreams and make goals, but translate those into the current reality in a manner that is more likely to occur. Consider what you have to do weekly and monthly from a time management standpoint to make sure you really do have the time to commit to something. And it is better to have one goal than many. The more you have, the less likely you are to accomplish any of them.”
One problem with the holidays is people being pulled in different directions. There can be conflicts at family gatherings. Manning advises that when there are unaddressed issues in the family, it might be better to address those later in the year instead of when the entire clan is together.
“Go in with a commitment not to argue, and instead look for ways to get along,” he said. “People are pulled in different directions. A time that is supposed to be happy is stressful if someone wants to leave to go to another party. Schedule time together with families, but also time for people to do what they want. And if grieving for loved ones is an issue, this is a great time to establish new traditions that honor loved ones.”
Lack of sleep is a big issue for people. Maintaining appropriate sleep habits is important.
From a business owner’s standpoint, Manning recommends that employers be realistic about work load productivity during the holidays. Cut people some slack, but don’t give the impression that employees really don’t have any obligations. Encourage wellness efforts by employees.
“A lot of people have regular exercise programs they drop during the holiday season because it is so busy,” Manning said. “They don’t appreciate what a big impact regular exercise has on mental health. So we encourage people to do at least some type of physical activity because that could be important.”
When should employers be concerned about signs of an employee being depressed at the holidays? Manning said generally if the depression is simply because of holiday stress, the problems are resolved when people get back to normal. But if the holiday depression has triggered a more serious depression that doesn’t go away, the employee may need follow-up care with a professional.
Amy Shute, director of social services, St. Dominic Behavioral Health, Jackson, said the holidays tend to exacerbate existing mental health problems. If it is true holiday depression, people get through it and move on. But for people who are severely depressed, or have drug and alcohol addictions, the problem isn’t resolved once the holidays are past.
‘Who wants to be in the
hospital at Christmas?’
Despite holiday depression, there are actually fewer people in the hospital this time of year for psychiatric disorders.
“Who wants to be in the hospital at Christmas?” Shute asks. “We will get homeless people who live in a car or something because they have no where to be. Anyone who has a family isn’t going to want to be in the hospital at Christmas.”
Shute’s recommendation for holiday depression include surrounding yourself with loved ones and friends.
“Keeping busy is the key,” she said. “Consider volunteering. When you are sitting around with depression, it becomes a bigger animal than when it started. Taking time off work may not be a good idea. Do all you can to stay busy whether helping others or doing projects. Volunteer at places like Stewpot where they serve meals to the homeless. It is very rewarding because you feel like you are helping others and you are staying busy.”
If a person feels like he just can’t get out of bed, he doesn’t want to do anything but sleep, and there are thoughts of suicide, he should immediately get help. Shute recommends that if employers notice drastic change in someone’s behavior, address it immediately.
“Most big places of employment have some kind of counseling center or employee assistance program,” she said.
During the holidays, there are a lot of parties where alcohol is served. And sometimes people turn to alcohol to relieve the stress of the holidays. The holidays can be a time when people with drug or alcohol problems are more likely to have problems.
“With the patients we work with, the holidays are very stressful, and we have to be more alert to possible relapse,” said Amanda Wilson, assistant director of alcohol and drug services, Region III Chemical Dependency Services, Tupelo. “A lot of times people feel overwhelmed and stressed out. It becomes too easy to turn to alcohol and other drugs to get relief. At this time of the year, people need to be even more vigilant in managing stress and emotional levels, and not letting it overwhelm you.”
Wilson is no fan of alcohol being served at office parties. But if alcohol is served, she recommends setting boundaries and making sure there are designated drivers.
“If you are the host of a party, be willing to set boundaries,” Wilson recommends. “Most people aren’t willing to do that. The next thing you know, an intoxicated person is getting behind the wheel.”
This can be a very stressful time of year for people in recovery. They often worry they don’t have enough money to buy presents for families. If they are a recovering, especially in early recovery, they feel they have to over compensate for previous holidays they have not been there for the family.
“I see it all the time,” Wilson said. “People say they don’t have money to buy their family gifts because they are just getting on their feet. They feel pressured. We counsel them there is a way to work with this situation and not feel overly stressed about it. We give them tips for better coping skills to work with the stresses they are dealing with and not let it become overwhelming.”
Wilson has a piece of advice for anyone experiencing holiday stress or depression: Exercise.
“Exercise is a great stress reliever at any time of the year,” she said. “A lot of times when we are the most stressed, it is the last thing we think of doing. We think there isn’t enough time. We can’t fit it in. Yet it is the heart of our treatment here. We have exercise time on a daily basis. There is therapeutic value to it. There is a reason for it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.