Holiday Blues

Multicolored lights twinkle across houses and reindeer pose in front yards. Parents and eager children form long lines to sit on a Santa's lap while sucking on candy canes. Decorations and sale signs adorn every store window. Jingle bells and Christmas carols fill the air. Chestnuts are roasting on an open fire. Holiday movies are in every theater, "Miracle on 34th Street" replays in many homes. Families and friends gather around a cozy hearth smiling and laughing. Couples romantically walk hand in hand. The holidays are bliss for many, but not all.

The holidays are upon us, and if you would rather deck the next guy you see in a red suit than the halls, you may be suffering from the "holiday blues." These blues have also been called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and affect more than one million people each year. It is a very common emotional experience.

Although holiday depression is a common and typical response to a stressful season, the symptoms of SAD can be severe enough to interfere with your daily functioning, as well as personal relationships. The symptoms are generally temporary, manageable, and usually pass with time. The feelings tend to be situational. The most common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Mood changes, notably sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness and grief. These feelings can lead to suicidal ideation.
  • Agitation, anxiety and/or irritability which can lead to violence--family violence escalates during the holidays.
  • A decrease in physical activity which leaves a person feeling sluggish and sedentary.
  • An increase in the craving for carbohydrates, including alcohol.
  • A need for increased sleep.
  • Withdrawal from activities.

Many factors can cause the "holiday blues," including: stress, fatigue, over-commercialization, financial constraints, inability to be with family and friends during the holidays (or the pressure to be with family and friends). A death, loss, separation or other change in lifestyle can also lead to the holiday blues. The holidays also tend to dredge up feelings of loss, loneliness, and unhappy memories. Unrealistically high expectations in contrast to what actually happens during the season can also trigger the blues. Family rivalry can flare. The demands of shopping, parties, family reunions, and house guests also contribute to feelings of tension.

Winter depression has been clinically proven to be related to the fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter and daylight saving time ends during the winter. Research indicates that ten percent of the population is significantly affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sufferers of SAD may experience chronic fatigue, difficulty in sleeping, irritability, and feelings of sadness, regardless of other factors related to the holidays.

Law enforcement officers are at an obvious increased risk for the holiday blues. If you work second or third watches, how much sunlight do you get? While other people are viewing the positive aspects of the season, you are called to death investigations, domestic violence and child abuse calls. Every other car is probably a DUI. Party/noise calls, drunk-in-public contacts, and petty theft calls all increase. You remember the officer who died in the line of duty this year. You worry about the isolated partner who drinks too much. You work as much overtime as you can to buy the best gifts, only to learn your significant other resents that you are not present for the season's activities. Chances are good you will be working one, if not all, of the holidays, and you realize you have never seen your kids open their gifts on Christmas morning. You are going to be alone for the holidays for the first time since your wife/husband and you divorced. Now, add the regular stress that an officer faces daily, compound that with a possible IA investigation, loss of promotion, department infighting, and all of his/her personal as well as holiday pressures together. If you are not singing the blues, someone close to you is. There are some proactive things that you can do to decrease depressive and anxious symptoms, and minimize holiday stress.

Treatment for holiday depression does not usually require medication. If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, the most established treatment is bright light therapy. This type of therapy consists of looking at special broad spectrum bright lights from one-half to three hours a day, generally in the early morning hours (to prevent eye damage, do not stare into the light). Results are typically seen within a few days. Outdoor sunlight, sunlight through windows, bright home lights and commercially available lights can all be effective.

If you feel suicidal, notice changes in your personality, or your sadness is affecting you physically for more than two weeks, you may be experiencing a clinical depression and you should seek mental health treatment.

Tips for avoiding the holiday blues:

  • Pay attention to your moods and energy levels. If you realize that you start to feel down at the end of the summer, take action. A good offense is better than a defense.
  • Plan active events for yourself in advance of the fall and winter seasons.
  • Expose yourself to as much bright light as you can. If it is a sunny day, go outside as much as you can. If it is grey and overcast, use as much light indoors as you can.
  • Start physical activity before the humbugs get you.
  • Establish healthy eating and sleeping patterns.

30 Tips for coping with holiday stress and depression:

  1. Make realistic expectations for the holiday season.
  2. Set realistic goals for yourself. Pace yourself. Do not take on more responsibilities than you can handle. Make a list and prioritize the important activities. This can help make holiday tasks more manageable. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do.
  3. Do not put all your energy into just one day
  4. Live and enjoy the present.
  5. Make time for yourself!
  6. Look to the future with optimism.
  7. Don't set yourself up for disappointment and sadness by comparing today with the good old days of the past.
  8. Get competition out of your activities.
  9. Set differences aside.
  10. If you are lonely, try volunteering some time to help others.
  11. Find holiday activities that are free, such as looking at holiday decorations; going window shopping without buying and watching the winter weather whether it's a snowflake, or a raindrop.
  12. Limit your drinking; excessive drinking only increases your feelings of depression.
  13. Try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a new way.
  14. Spend time with supportive and caring people.
  15. Reach out and make new friends.
  16. Make time to contact a long lost friend or relative and spread some holiday cheer.
  17. Let others share the responsibilities of holiday tasks. Learn to delegate.
  18. Set reasonable limits regarding the purchase of gifts.
  19. Set reasonable expectations about who you are going to visit and when.
  20. Don't take responsibility for everyone else's holiday happiness.
  21. If loved ones are absent during the holidays, if relationships are broken, or there have been other types of tragedies, do not pretend that they do not exist.
  22. Resolutions really do work. They are ways of developing goals
  23. Exercise regularly.
  24. Eat a healthy diet; watch your carbohydrate, fat, and caloric intake
  25. Do not read newspapers and turn off your television. Negative stories evoke negative emotions
  26. Practice relaxation and deep breathing techniques.
  27. Avoid sleep deprivation.
  28. Ask for help if you need it, share your feelings with others.
  29. Rethink solutions.
  30. Finally, reflect on the spirit of the holidays. Our three major holidays involve messages that are important to remember. Thanksgiving celebrates what we are grateful for. Christmas is the season of love and the importance of giving and sharing with others. New Year's is a time of new beginnings.

The common belief that the winter holidays are the times that most suicides are completed is false. Actually, November and December rank the lowest in the number of monthly suicides, while the spring and fall months rank the highest. While many people become depressed during the holiday season, even more experience excessive stress and anxiety once the holidays have passed related to disappointments and fatigue.

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