Our mental health and the holiday season

As we approach the Holiday Season, Christmas through the New Year, most of us will have a most joyous and celebrative time.

For some people, however, the Holiday Season will be met with seasonal depression and the abuse of alcohol and other chemical substances; for them it will be a very difficult period of time.

Seasonal depression (also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder), most often associated with the days getting shorter in the fall and winter, and the subsequent absence of daylight may result in one contracting “Cabin Fever”; a state of restlessness, depression, and irritability caused by being in enclosed spaces for an extended amount of time (such as our friends up north who are snowed-in at this time of year, for example).

We psychologists have long known that extended periods of time inside, the lack of natural sun light contributes to depression. But another type of depression can also occur with the holiday season of fall and winter; what has often been termed the “holiday blues.”

Holiday Blues occur with the stress and preoccupation of the holidays, and/or the “let down” following the holidays.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year holidays are very stressful times for most of us.

There are the preparations for large meals, all the family and friends getting together, preparations for gift giving, Church activities, school activities, etc. all stress inducing activities and events that are met during this time of year.

There are certain individuals who are especially prone to having depression and grief reactions during these events of the holidays, as they are overly concerned in “making everything prefect;” those who may be prone to living in past memories of the way the holidays were like for them as a child or wanting to have holidays for their family and friends that they perhaps were denied for some reason as children.

For these individuals the holiday season can be most psychologically painful.

Most of us look forward after the holidays to begin a new year with a positive outlook.

Yet after the holidays there are individuals whom may experience the “Post-Holiday Blues;” that “let-down” after speeding through the holidays activities everything comes to a screeching halt and we are back to our normal day-to-day activities. Where did all of that happiness go?

Some of us have the faulty assumption, the unrealistic expectation that the happiness will last forever.

The reality sets in…paying bills brought on by holiday spending, returning gifts, returning to work, children back to school, etc.

The holiday season is most surely over.

We know that the brain chemicals, such as the endorphins and dopamine, are at their highest for most people during the holidays; and at their nadir or low point after the holidays, but for some people who experience depression during this period, their brain chemicals are especially low. For most people who experience the intense symptoms of post-holiday blues, the symptoms will abate.

The tiredness and restlessness, the loss or increase in appetite, the sadness, the difficulty settling down to performing tasks, and the irritability; all will pass when one recognizes the causes and gets back into normal (or new) routines. It is only when we “get out of ourselves” that a positive outlook occurs and the post-holiday blues go away.

Being pro-active, taking charge of our life is a key feature of overcoming the Blues. Budgeting our finances and time, spending quality time with friends and family, helping others, getting enough quality sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, being attentive to our spiritual needs, getting enough sun-light, not listening to music of a depressive nature…all help to get out of the Blues, which in turn improves our overall mental health.

Another problem that presents during the holiday season is the increased amount of alcohol and illicit chemical consumption, which actually aids and abets depressive symptoms. For those nearly 20 million individuals in our nation deemed problem drinkers, for example, the holiday periods may impose increased challenges.

For those struggling with these disorders the increased availability of alcohol and illicit chemical substances at this time of year can be most overwhelming. For those who find themselves alone at this time of year, the isolation from others may lead to depression and substance abuse as well. Individuals with these problems can find solace and support through self-help support groups, such as AA, and empathetic family and friends who know they should not or indeed do not, drink ethanol beverages or use illicit chemicals.

There are many individuals who do not bounce back so easily after the holiday season. Their moments of pleasure and happiness have been fleeting. They are individuals who suffer with Depression, and not just the pre and post-holiday blues.

The letdown after the holidays has sent many of them into a downward spiral, often with ruminations of the past. It is very difficult for them to comprehend in the “here and now,” or to see a bright future. Their clinical depression, their imbalance in brain chemistry, by its very nature keeps them depressed; thus requiring a need for medication or other therapies.

With the holidays upon us, it is a time to reflect on our approaching attitudes and behaviors concerning the holidays; making the appropriate plans for joyous events and entering into the New Year with faith and hope. If you or a loved one are having difficulty with depression, or are have difficulties with chemical substances; whether it be prior to the holidays or in the post season, then seek out help.

If you find yourself in severe distress, please call the Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990. This 24/7 hotline is dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused event.

I have talked with Counselors there, and I can assure you that they are a great bunch of folks who are most willing to help with any problems you may be enduring. There really, truly are people in our lives to turn to when we are in need. May you all have a most wonderful and joyous Holiday Season, and Stay Healthy my Friends!