Getting the holiday blues?

You may be surprised that you are not alone. Mental health professionals have long recognized that a lot of people get depressed before and during holiday seasons.

311_depression (photo credit: MCT)
(photo credit: MCT)
Mental health professionals have long recognized that a lot of people get depressed before and during holiday seasons, only to find that their depression goes away as soon as the holiday passes. Called the “holiday blues,” this phenomenon has a lot to do with the cognitive expectations that people have leading up to the holiday. People go into the holiday season, particularly new years, hoping that things will be better. What we’re supposed to think and feel on holidays is happiness, but this expectation may not be matched by our actual situation.
Rosh Hashana signals a chance for a clean spiritual slate and a new beginning, but some people have difficulty embracing this positive view. Because holidays are anniversaries steeped in ritual and nostalgia, they bring about a psychological comparison of the past and present. For some, comparing where we are today with where we may have been or where we would like to be in the future, rather than inspiring hope can lead to an unexpected nosedive in mood.
Perhaps the holiday triggers a memory of the loss of a loved one or the breaking up of a relationship, or memory of time spent with someone missed. Some people who have chronic illness report that holidays often remind them of times when they were in better health, casting doubts about their future health prospects. Worrying about the health problems of a loved one is another common cause for mood dives during the holidays.
Many people worry about their economic situation and fear that the new year will not turn things around. Some people also may have bad childhood memories of holidays, perhaps because they grew up in a dysfunctional family and therefore, subconsciously, the holiday triggers a bad memory. Often these unpleasant thoughts and their associated antecedents stay in one’s subconscious.
What the individual experiences instead is sadness at a time when one is supposed to feel happy.
I knew a man who was single, 35 and hoping to develop a relationship with a young woman.
His track record in relationships had not been so good. As Rosh Hashana approached, he became quite depressed and came into therapy to try to understand his depression. What was interesting was that his depression lifted as soon as the holidays passed.
So, what happened to him during the holidays? It became clear that the holiday was like a marker of passing time, forcing him to look at the past, the present and the future. It was a time to reflect and take stock of what he had, what he did not have and what he would like. The results generated by his inventory made him concerned about his future, so he got depressed.
Another situation involved a young woman, 28, who dreaded going home to be with her parents during the holidays. She knew that her parents’ marriage was falling apart and her father, 60, had just lost his job. For her just thinking about going home drove her mood into depression.
1. Talk about your feelings to your spouse or a friend you trust or a therapist, especially if the depression becomes too overwhelming. Don’t hold in your feelings.
2. Spend time nurturing yourself and doing things that make you feel good about yourself. Buy yourself a present, work out at the gym, listen to relaxing music or read a good book. Getting a massage or having your hair cut can also make your mood feel better.
3. Try not to isolate yourself during this time of year, since connecting with others can potentially relieve some of the symptoms of depression – even if it is only a temporary relief. If you are alone, it is a great time to join a group in some area of interest.
4. If no one calls to invite you for a holiday meal, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Be proactive.
It’s a great time to invite someone to your home.
5. Take stock of the good things that are going right in your life – there usually are, but when a person is depressed, these things are easily forgotten. Try to create positive images of these good things.
6. Don’t forecast failures about your future; instead, look at the new year as an opportunity for positive improvements in all the areas of your life.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem and Ra’anana.