You just can’t put your finger on it. You feel lackluster and sad, sluggish and antisocial even though it is the festive holiday season. What gives? Where is that holiday merriment you envisioned when entering this joyful time of year?
The holiday blues is not an uncommon phenomenon. This can be due to an escalation of an existing depressive disorder during a time of year that can trigger us, or it may be the holiday season itself sparking a depressive episode. Whatever the cause, learning how to manage depression during the holidays can help you find enjoyment in the festivities.
How the Holidays Can Trigger Depression
There is something about the holiday season that can spark feelings of melancholy. Perhaps feelings of nostalgia for the holidays from an earlier chapter of life can trigger a sense of sadness for one’s current state. Maybe there has been a recent loss of a loved one. Grief is amplified during the season when that person would have been a part of the festivities. Loneliness can lead to a depressive episode, especially for people who have recently divorced or ended a relationship.
The holidays seem to bring our emotions up to the surface. The music, the holiday movies, the decorations we put out each year… all of these things may lead to wistful longing for something that seems unattainable. Financial concerns can also factor into feelings of not measuring up to expectations when it comes to gift giving. In essence, there are umpteen ways that the holiday season can make depression worse.
What are the Signs of Major Depressive Disorder?
The signs of depression during the holidays are the same as any other time of year. There are distinct symptoms that, when they persist for at least two weeks, signal major depressive disorder. These symptoms include:
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Sleeping too much or unable to sleep enough
- Irrational feelings of shame, worthlessness, or guilt
- Sudden weight gain or weight loss
- Slowed movements and thinking
- Difficulty making decisions or paying attention
- Loss of interest in the things once enjoyed
- Thoughts of death or suicide
The scientific community has not yet determined the exact cause of this complex mental health disorder. There are some factors that have been identified as contributory, such as a family history of depression, brain chemistry imbalances, personality traits, a history of abuse or trauma, stressful life events, and substance abuse.
7 Ways to Deal with Depression During the Holidays
It isn’t surprising that many people struggle with depression during the holidays. With all the demands of the season it can all become simply overwhelming. To help manage depression, try these 7 tips:
- Practice self-care. During the holiday season we are wired to give—give to others, do for others, be there for others. While that is laudable, sometimes being swept up in giving can cause us to lose track of our own personal needs. To help find a healthy balance, don’t forget to practice self-care. This means listening to yourself and knowing when you might benefit from a massage or a visit to the therapist. Tending to one’s own wellness during the busy holidays can help regulate mood.
- Help others. Back to the idea of giving… Giving of oneself in a selfless manner is a virtue. When participating in activities that are not about you but about helping someone less fortunate can provide a deep sense of purpose. It just feels good to volunteer at a charity event or help pass out food at a pantry for the needy. Find an organization that you can get behind and offer your time. It will make you feel really good.
- Reach out for support. Know you limits. Be aware of when you are sinking into the depths of depression and contact your support network. This can be a close friend, a family member, a support group, or your therapist. Do not ignore the signs that you are in a dark place. Instead, ask those who care about your wellbeing to sit and talk with you, take a walk together, or go grab lunch so you can share your emotional state with them.
- Get outside. Fresh air and sunshine have remarkable restorative properties. Sometimes when feeling really low a brisk walk or jog can help shift the mood. Physical activity is one of the best things we can do for depression, as it is a natural resource for improving our state of mind. This is due to the endorphins that are produced during exercise, which offer the feel-good effects. Sun exposure is also helpful for mood, as it has been found that vitamin D, which is produced by sun exposure, can help with depression symptoms.
- Start a new tradition. When grief and loss are at the root of the depression, it can be painful to face the holiday traditions in the absence of the loved one. As difficult as it is to change it up, try doing just that at least for the first Christmas without the person. Instead of the traditional family holiday dinner or party, suggest that the family enjoys a weekend at an Airbnb cabin in the mountains or at the lake. Possibly have dinner out at a restaurant and follow it up with a movie. If the weather is good, why not plan a family picnic at a local park and have games? The family will understand, so don’t be shy about throwing out some suggestions.
- Practice mindfulness. Sometimes all the commotion surrounding the holidays can blot out our ability to remain in the present. Our attention is pulled in all different directions and worries about the past and future can cause us to lose sight of today. By practicing mindfulness, a type of meditation that teaches us to focus on the here and now, you can refocus attention on the present moment, including your emotional state. Reining in thought distractions allows us to pause and check in with ourselves. Are we okay?
- Get quality sleep. Believe it or not, how much sleep we get on a regular basis is really important to our state of mind. When we deprive our body and mind of restorative sleep we are disrupting our circadian cycle, which can cause us to go through our days feeling tire, moody, and unproductive. To achieve a better quality of sleep, stick to a regular daily sleep schedule so the body can regulate the circadian rhythm. Limit caffeine intake, avoid heavy meals after 7:00pm, and turn off the electronic devices.
Getting Help for Depression
When battling depression during the holidays, or at any time of the year, it is essential to get support from a mental health professional. Depression can worsen if left untreated, which can increase the risk of suicidal ideation. Undiagnosed depression can also spill over to our physical health, becoming a factor in heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, chronic fatigue, and stroke.
Finding relief from the symptoms of depression begins with a visit to the doctor. A physical examination can help eliminate any relationship between the depressive symptoms and a medical condition. There are several health conditions that present with co-occurring depression symptoms. If there is no health issue causing the depression, the physician will likely prescribe an antidepressant or refer the patient to a psychiatrist.
Outpatient treatment for depression relies on two primary treatment interventions, medication and psychotherapy. The antidepressant drug therapy sometimes takes some trialing before the best antidepressant fit is achieved. With about 30 antidepressants on the market, a doctor may prescribe what he or she believes is the best one for the presenting patient. However, it is very common to switch to a different medication and do some dosage tweaks before a drug is found to be effective. The effects of the antidepressants take about 4-6 weeks to begin to make a difference with the depression symptoms.
Psychotherapy is the other half of the typical treatment approach for depressive disorder. Through individual therapy sessions the individual is able to explore possible underlying unresolved emotional issues that might be contributing to the affliction. The therapist can assist the individual in processing this pain and initiating the healing process. Also, cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term modality that helps the person to identify negative self-talk or disordered thought patterns that can be reshaped towards positive, productive thought patterns.
When these interventions are ineffective in treating the depression, or should the individual become suicidal, there is the residential mental health treatment option to consider. In a residential environment the individual will undergo a very thorough psychological evaluation, during which all psychiatric and medical history are examined, medications are evaluated, and an intake interview is conducted. This allows the intake team to design a customized treatment plan that is aligned with the specific features of the depressive disorder.
Residential treatment is an intensive, targeted approach to helping individuals with severe depression. It will involve a multi-modal approach to treatment, using a variety of treatment elements. These include:
- Group therapy
- Family therapy
- Dual diagnosis treatment if applicable
- Experiential activities
- Holistic therapies
- Continuing care
When struggling with major depressive disorder it is important to understand that many people find relief through these interventions, going on to enjoy a fulfilling life, and many pleasant holiday seasons to come.
Mental Health Hope Offers Guidance for Depression Treatment
Mental Health Hope is an online resource that specializes in providing free information and treatment options for mental health disorders. When faced with depression during the holidays, don’t attempt to gut it out on your own. Reach out to the compassionate and knowledgeable team at Mental Health Hope for guidance about finding help for depression. Call us today at (877) 967-9274.