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Holiday Depression: Tips for Coping

10 Ways to Spot and Avoid Holiday Depression

Along with mirth and joy, the holidays bring almost everyone a dose of seasonal stress – and for some the risk of depression. Obligations of travel, errands, and parties make a snowdrift of our schedules. Trying to keep up, millions of people will catch a mild case of the holiday blues.

For those who have suffered from significant depression, though, the demands of the holidays can look more like an Everest. The question becomes not "how to fit it all in?" but "how to get through it all?"

It may be comforting to know that the rate of serious depression doesn't seem to rise during the holidays. Visits to mental health providers are no higher in November and December than at other times of the year.

Still, a holiday depression is as serious as any other. Maybe you can't make it "the most wonderful time of the year." But it can still be a season that's healthy, even happy, for you. Take a look at these practical tips to keep holiday depression at bay.

  1. Plan Ahead to Cope With Holiday Depression
    If you think a holiday depression is coming on, the first thing is to acknowledge it. "Some people are in denial about their own depression," says Elaine Rodino, PhD, spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association. "Then suddenly they're in the midst of it, and get hurt by it."

    What you can do: Look at your past history and take stock of your feelings heading into the holidays. If you expect the holidays to trigger a significant depression, the smart thing to do is to schedule a visit with your therapist or psychiatrist before more hectic days arrive.

  2. Make Time to Reduce Stress During the Holidays
    "During the holidays, the things that we do all year to manage our stress -- eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising -- it's a time when these things are the first to go," says Jerilyn Ross, MA, LICSW, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

    What you can do: Consider what you normally do to stay balanced during the year. Then, "schedule those things in, just like a meeting or a visit," says Ross. "Even 15 minutes of 'alone time' before you meet the relatives can keep you grounded."

  3. Set Realistic Holiday Expectations
    Overblown expectations may be a main reason for depression at the holidays. "People are often baffled" by holiday depression, says Ross. "They think, 'It's the holidays, I should be happy, but I feel sad.'" Faced with seemingly out-of-place feelings, people may not know "how to react, how to feel." We typically feel obligated to follow the traditions in which we were raised, Rodino adds. As families change, some holiday traditions go by the wayside.

    What you can do: Be realistic. Most things – including holidays -- won't turn out perfectly -- so don't expect them to. As Ross puts it: "Take away the 'shoulds." "People don't realize they can change and make new traditions" if old ones can't be maintained, says Rodino. Maybe it's not possible to have the big get-together every year. Instead, "doing charitable work or taking a trip together" can become new family holiday traditions, she adds.

  4. Help Yourself Through the Holidays by Helping Others
    When did the holidays become all about shopping and spending? The greatest gift you can give this holiday season is your time to those less fortunate. "Besides being uplifting, charitable work takes you out of the glitz and glitter" of the holidays that can leave you feeling empty, says Rodino.

  5. What you can do: Volunteer. Call the United Way, a church in your neighborhood, or the local soup kitchen. They and the people they serve will be grateful for your help. "This accomplishes two things: it gets you around other people, and you're doing something that feels good," says Thomas Wise, MD, professor of psychiatry at George Washington School of Medicine and spokesman for the American Psychiatric Association.

  6. Don't Believe the Holiday Hype
    During the holidays, we're bombarded with media images of "how we should feel and experience the holidays," says Wise. "Families being joyous" is a common theme, he adds. You may start to feel that your real-life family doesn't measure up.

    What you can do: Be skeptical. Remember that most "normal" families have fractures and friction around the holidays. Most of the TV imagery is intended to sell you an idea of the holidays -- with the hope you'll buy something else they're selling.

  7. Consider Seasonal Affective Disorder
    If you get depressed every winter, your holiday depression could be due to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition affects millions of Americans and is related to the reduced exposure to sunlight in colder months. "The shortest periods of daylight are right around the holidays" in most of the U.S., says Wise.

    What you can do: See your doctor to discuss your pattern of symptoms of depression. If seasonal affective disorder contributes to your holiday depression, light therapy could help, says Wise.

  8. Don't Add Guilt to the Mix
    Part of the reason the holidays are stressful if you're depressed, says Rodino, is "there's this requirement for happy moods." When considering social engagements, you may feel "doomed if you do and doomed if you don't," she adds. Avoiding friends and family feels bad, and so does attending a party where "everyone's being cheery and you just can't."

    What you can do: Give yourself a break. If you're depressed, do what makes you feel good. "If you can't do it, you shouldn't feel guilty for it" and make the situation worse, says Rodino.

  9. Reach Out for Support if You Have Holiday Depression
    People without loving families nearby can feel especially lonely during the holidays. A holiday depression feels bad; having "no support system makes it even worse," says Wise. If you're feeling alone, it's important not to isolate yourself.

  10. What you can do: Reach out to others and make a connection during the holidays. Offer to help organize a holiday meal or gathering with others who are away from family. Make the effort to call family and friends who are far away. Take a chance on inviting someone new into your social circle. It may feel difficult but will most likely help you feel better.

  11. Defer Family Conflicts Until After the Holidays
    Tensions are often high during the holidays, and nerves wear thin during family get-togethers. This might not be the best time to settle old scores.

    What you can do: Resist the temptation to get drawn into arguments. Simply saying, "why don't we talk about that next week?" usually works. Bring the issue up again when holiday stress has eased.

  12. Get Treated if You Feel Depressed
    The highest priority of the holidays is your mental health. According to Wise, "if you start to feel hopeless and helpless, having trouble sleeping and concentrating" -- in other words, seriously depressed -- it's time to get professional help.

    What you can do: Call your regular mental health professional, or your primary care doctor. "Christmas [and the holidays] can be quite a challenge" for someone who's depressed, says Wise. The good news: Holiday depression, like any other depression, is treatable.

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