When Do the Holiday Blues Become Something Major?

sad gingerbread man

The holidays are often escorted by the holiday blues, so do not feel alone with this winter funk. But how do you know if you’re feeling a seasonal condition or a more lasting depression?

“Comparing the holiday blues to a depressive disorder is like comparing a cold to pneumonia,” says Robert Hales, chairman of the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Major depression can destroy joy for living and make it impossible to focus on work and responsibilities. Individuals may experience hopelessness and depressive symptoms such as sadness and tearfulness throughout the day. Thoughts of death or suicide may enter their minds.”

As the world’s most common mental ailment, about 16 percent of adults will experience depression during their lives, the UC Davis academic writes, and “stress-related events such as the holidays may trigger half of all depressive episodes.”

It is the severity and endurance of symptoms that separate holiday blues from the more crippling depressive disorder, also known as major depression or clinical depression, experts say. Depression is not a weakness that one can will themselves out of; it is a medical condition in which one feels dread, loss of interest in what’s normally been of interest, intense sadness, and often an inability to function day-to-day. It is not a fleeting feeling but a chronic condition and sometimes makes sufferers feel pinned in bed or indoors, where the simplest tasks such as bathing seem overwhelming.

There’s an Upside

The good news is that depression, while typically a chronic condition, and the holiday blues, are treatable, usually with a combination of antidepressants, psychological counseling and other treatment therapies, according to the Mayo Clinic. And one significant thing that you can do to counter depression, immediately, and for free, is to exercise. Studies have repeatedly found benefits to reducing depression with this natural approach.

“When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain, WebMD states. “Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body. … For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a “runner’s high,” can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.”

But first one has to recognize that they are having a bout of the blues or depression, said Dr. Jason Powers, regional chief medical officer for Right Step treatment center in Texas and for Austin’s Promises center. Powers said many people still don’t know that the “holiday blues” are a real set of general symptoms. “These mercuric symptoms, which can include sadness, anxiety, headaches, gastro-intestinal problems, insomnia, interpersonal conflicts, and irritability, are frequently confused for depressive disorder.

“Besides sharing several obvious symptoms with depression,” Powers said, “the holiday blues are perplexing for other reasons. We are supposed to relish the Thanksgiving- Christmas-New Year trilogy. We are supposed to ignore the stress of shopping, demanding relatives and friends, office parties, cooking, financial limitations and more. In addition, we are supposed to take care of all of these things with holiday cheer. However, we are not robots. Human beings naturally respond to stress in predictable and, all too often, self-destructive ways.”

Amplifying the holiday stress is the trickle-down impact on the family, particularly children, said Kate Nulty, LCSW, a Los Alamitos psychotherapist in private practice.

The holiday blues happen for some, Nulty said, because for weeks, we can be thrown off of our regular routine of self-care: exercise, sleep, healthy eating –- balance. And increased family time and gatherings with potentially stressful people -– perhaps even abusive relatives — are factors, too.

“In my practice, the holidays often cause traumatic memories to surface,” said Nulty. “I think with kids in general, some of the struggles are losing sight of the meaning of whatever holiday you are celebrating and just focusing on materialism — the gift-getting.

Unplug, Slow Down, Be Together

Children actually are aware, on some level, of the divergence between the spiritual meaning of their holiday and the drumbeat of commercialism infiltrating their media, Nulty said. They experience let down from holiday expectations like adults may. And younger family members have their version of holiday blues, some of it second-hand from their elders. Kids feel the stress of adults, be they teachers, coaches or parents, as they try managing the added weeks of effort that the holidays bring.

So for starters, Nulty said, all ages can ward off milder holiday blues by simply unplugging, slowing down and being together. More severe symptoms, the experts say, require treatment by professionals.

If during the holidays you experience many of the below symptoms to such severity that they interfere with normal relationships, UC Davis’s Hales said, go to your primary caregiver for help:

  • Feeling depressed, sad and discouraged
  • Loss of interest in once-pleasurable and enjoyable activities
  • Eating more or less than usual, or gaining or losing weight
  • Having trouble sleeping, or sleeping more than usual
  • Feeling slow or restless
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, or inadequate
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty thinking clearly or making decisions
  • Persistent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Withdrawal from others and lack of interest in sex
  • Various physical symptoms.
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