Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but for many people they are anything but.
Depression may occur at any time of the year, but the stress and anxiety of the holiday season—especially during the months of November and December (and, to a lesser extent, just before Valentine's Day)—may cause even those who are usually content to experience loneliness and a lack of fulfillment.
Part of the problem, according to Adam K. Anderson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is the bombardment of media during the holidays showing images of smiling families and friends.
"[People] may start to question the quality of their own relationships," he says.
According to one 1999 Canadian study of patients treated by emergency psychiatric services during the Christmas season, the most common stressors were feelings of loneliness and "being without a family."
Facts & Statistics: The Truth About the Holiday Suicide Myth
The myth has been repeated so many times, most people consider it common knowledge: more people commit suicide between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of the year. Although it sounds reasonable, it simply isn't true.
Contrary to popular belief, December actually has the fewest suicide attempts of any month of the year. The facts, while seemingly encouraging, may be more complicated, however.
While it's true that suicide attempts tend to drop off just before and during the holidays, there is a significant uptick in suicide rates following Christmas—a 40 percent uptick, according to one large Danish study. Christmas itself seems to have a protective effect with regard to certain types of psychopathology, say researchers, but there is a significant rebound effect immediately following the holiday.
Although fewer people utilize emergency services or attempt suicide during December, there is an increase in certain other kinds of psychopathology, including mood disorders such as dysphoria and substance abuse.
Social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression—especially during the holidays.
People who are lonely or have feelings of disconnectedness often avoid social interactions at holiday time. Unfortunately, withdrawing often exacerbates the feelings of loneliness and symptoms of depression. These individuals may see other people spending time with friends and family and ask themselves, "Why can't that be me?" or "Why is everyone else so much happier than I am?"
Experts advise a regimen of self-care during the holidays, which includes eating a healthy diet, maintaining a regular sleep pattern, and exercise. In fact, as little as 30-minutes of cardiovascular exercise can provide an immediate mood boost similar to the effects of an antidepressant medications.
One of the best things a person can do, however, is to reach out to others despite how difficult it may seem. "That loneliness should act in a similar way to thirst, motivating you to change your behavior in some way," says John Cacioppo, Ph.D., director of the Center of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
Grieving During the Holidays
For many people, holidays are a painful reminder of what once was. This is especially true for people who have experienced a significant loss such as the death of a spouse or a break-up. For these individuals, it is important to manage expectations, experts say.
When envisioning how the holidays will unfold after a loss, a person should include both the highs and lows in her expectations. Valentine's Day can be especially difficult for people who've ended a relationship.
"Don't let anyone put a time limit on your broken heart," says Deborah Serani, Psy.D, author of the book Living With Depression. She advises people to participate in "comforting experiences" such as going for a walk, eating well, and keeping a routine sleep schedule. She stresses that people going through this type of grieving shouldn't feel ashamed.
Dealing with Holiday Depression
For those who have lost a spouse or significant other, there are several other ways to stave off the holiday blues including:
- Begin a new tradition. Plan a family outing or vacation instead of spending the holidays at home.
- Don't succumb to holiday pressures. Feel free to leave an event if you aren't comfortable and be willing to tell others, "I'm not up for this right now."
- Volunteer. Work at a soup kitchen, organize a gift drive or simply help the neighbor dig the snow out of his driveway.
- Get back to nature. Going for a walk in the park or the woods helps many people who are feeling overwhelmed to feel better.
If your feelings of sadness during the holidays are accompanied by suicidal thoughts, call 911, immediately proceed to a hospital emergency room, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).