For many people, the beginning of the holiday season is filled with excitement and anticipation. Family gatherings are planned; festive activities are arranged; gifts are bought and received. But for many, this time of year is very difficult and painful, even dreaded. Sometimes a person knows beforehand that the holidays are going to be tough. Perhaps there has been a recent death of a loved one that leaves a gaping emotional hole in the holiday. Perhaps there are financial worries that make the consumerism of the holidays a burden. Or perhaps being with family creates a great deal of anxiety because holiday gatherings have historically gone badly.
It is not unusual for the phenomenon known as “the holiday blues” to present itself in a way that looks a lot like depression. One can have a whole host of symptoms, including tiredness, sadness, anxiety, pessimism, trouble concentrating, restlessness, insomnia, loss of appetite or over-eating and irritability. And these symptoms can descend slowly or they can hit suddenly as the days shorten in November and television ads bombard us with images of idyllic family gatherings, beautifully decorated homes, and cars wrapped like gifts with bows on top. So what distinguishes transient holiday blues from actual clinical depression?
First off, the feelings of unhappiness that characterize the holiday blues may ebb and flow over the course of a day or a week. In other words, one might feel perfectly fine and then be faced with an anxiety-provoking aspect of the holiday and suddenly feel low. In contrast, depression is a more unrelenting state. It may have some variation over the course of a day, but people who are depressed have fairly constant symptoms for at least two weeks in order to “qualify” for the diagnosis. And there is no noticeable relief during this time.
Changes in appetite and sleep disturbance are more indicative of a clinical depression than the holiday blues. All of us have times when we lose our appetite or reach for food when we are anxious. That is normal. And all of us have nights when sleep is elusive. But if these become daily symptoms, then low mood will worsen. Not sleeping makes a person feel unwell very quickly. And even if the holidays were the catalyst, it might be time to seek help before the depression worsens.
With the holiday blues, despite the symptoms you’re experiencing there is an awareness that this “funk” is time limited and will pass once the holidays are done and gone. But with depression, a feeling of timelessness starts to seep in. It is common for a person with depression to feel that the pain will never lift, that this is the “new normal.” And this deep pessimism puts some at risk for feeling suicidal, which of course requires the help of a mental health professional.
Often a person who is depressed cannot quite remember what caused the depression in the first place. He or she might know that something sparked it, but over time depression develops such a life of its own that it feels bigger than any one event or loss. In contrast, holiday blues feel firmly tied to the period between mid-November and January 1.
So what can you do if this holiday season feels difficult to face? Of course, there are many standard suggestions at this time of year: exercise, sleep enough, don’t overeat, etc. Sometimes these suggestions can seem to add to the burden of the season! What might be more important is to figure out what the non-negotiables are for you in particular. If you love to exercise, then be sure you do it. But perhaps your go-to self-soothing activity is knitting or cooking, binge watching a particular TV show, or making sure you attend a supportive meeting. Figure out what you will not give up despite the demands of the holidays. Also, even though holiday traditions may feel sacred, allow yourself to change these traditions in your family if you dread them. They need not be written in stone. Finally, if you find yourself still feeling stressed and unhappy after the new year begins, seek professional help because depression is treatable.
At the Counseling Center of Bronxville in Westchester, we can provide support and guidance to help you manage a range of issues and anxieties affecting your daily life.