Finding Ways to Work through Those Holiday or Winter Blues

Reprinted from the Princeton Packet, Friday, December 18, 1998

Finding Ways to Work through Those Holiday or Winter Blues

By David L. Nathan, MD

People’s moods during the holidays often reflect the light and dark sides of the season. The lights of Christmas and Hanukkah may be shining, yet the days have become shorter and darker. Similarly, amid the joy of the holiday, many people often feel gloomy or blue.

Many people talk about having the “holiday blues,” or they may know a friend or family member who dreads the holidays. The feeling is quite common. Often, the change in mood is brought on by the holiday itself, such as the stress of getting together with family and friends or seeing others have a good time when you

Some people experience seasonal depression over the shorter, darker days of winter. In either case, there are some steps people can take to cope and make it through the holiday.

True holiday blues can be triggered by stress or pressure about holiday preparations, or apprehension over a big family gathering, particularly if there are strained feelings between relatives. Even “good stress” such as preparing the holiday meal or gift

Loneliness can also bring on the blues, as can sadness or grief over someone who is no longer there. Anniversaries of a person’s death or divorce are always hard, no matter when they occur during the year.

There is also a seasonal component to depression this time of year. Some people experience a drop in mood because of what is often called “winter blues,” but is technically known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Decreased sunlight is thought to cause some people’s mood changes. Approximately 11 million people are diagnosed with SAD, and women are four times more likely to suffer from it than men

The symptoms of both holiday blues and “winter blues” can be similar. People may have difficulty dealing with stress and are not able to cope with things as well as they normally do. They may experience depressive or anxious feelings, or they may become more irritable. They may also have problems sleeping or eating and

There is no magic bullet for coping with this time of year. But there are some suggestions to help lighten the holiday for those feeling depressed:

First, acknowledge your feelings. Take a moment and consider what your issues are. Are you the kind of person who feels unhappy at times for no clear reason? Is it the holiday or a family relationship that is causing you to feel depressed? Is it the death of a family member or a divorce that is making this year’s holiday difficult? Or is winter always difficult for you?

Seek out the support of family and friends. If you are experiencing the loss of a loved one, there are also grief support groups and other self-help groups that may also be beneficial.

Get proper rest, exercise and nutrition. Do things to regulate and improve the quality of your sleep, such as going to bed at the same time each night and awakening at the same time, and eating meals at the same times. If your sleep is off and your energy level is low, your mood can become lower, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Avoid isolation. Try to get out of the house and see friends. Get involved in your community through activities with a church or synagogue or a community group. Doing something to help others, like delivering holiday baskets to the elderly or less fortunate, or volunteering at a soup kitchen, not only helps others but can lift your own spirits.

Let go of the past and try to create new and different ways to celebrate the holiday.

Modulate the use of alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and can actually worsen your mood, even though it may briefly numb the anxiety and stress of the season.

Modulate your expectations about the holidays. People often have unrealistic ideas about a picture-perfect holiday celebration, gifts or hearing from long-lost friends, and these expectations can go unfulfilled.

Light up your life. If you suffer from seasonal depression, light therapy or taking a trip to a sunny spot may help boost your mood.

However, it should be noted that people who suffer from bipolar depression can actually have an adverse reaction to winter sunshine getaways, becoming manic with the switch to longer days.

When a person’s mood takes on a life of its own, independent from the circumstances that might have triggered it, it is time to seek professional counseling from either a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. Obviously the strongest warning sign to get help is if someone experiences suicidal or other violent thoughts. Disruption of sleep, loss of appetite, lack of concentration and the inability to enjoy otherwise pleasurable activities—something that psychiatrists call “anhedonia”—are also signs of clinical depression, which can be treated through counseling

Holiday or “winter” blues tend to be temporary and seasonal, unlike depression, which is longer lasting and requires treatment. People who suffer from the blues might bear in mind that the holidays.

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