The holidays are typically anticipated as a time of joy, festivity, celebrating life with friends and family. But for some, it triggers feelings of sadness, loneliness and even depression.
A survey of Americans found that 70 percent of adults said the holidays are the best time of the year. But 30 percent said they are likely to experience anxiety, loneliness or depression during those weeks.
“Christmas is the best time of year for some people, but for many it’s the worst time of year,” said Dr. Darlene Ifill-Taylor, outpatient medical director for Novant Health Psychiatric Associates.
There are several reasons why people may struggle, Ifill-Taylor said. In her practice, she’s seen patients with difficult childhoods who have experienced bad Christmas seasons and now dread the holidays.
“For another group, it’s a yearly anniversary reaction,” Ifill-Taylor said. “If a person has lost a mom, dad, or significant other during the holidays, they’ll feel blue and not necessarily know why they feel so badly during the holidays years later.”
Others may not experience the holidays as they once did. Their children are now adults so they don’t decorate the house, for instance. Others are alone. And, there are the pressures of popular culture that barrage us with unrealistic notions of what Christmas is “supposed” to be like, Ifill-Taylor said.
People who are most vulnerable to anxiety at Christmas are those with clinical depression, Ifill-Taylor said. “The holidays require a lot of energy from us. Children, friends and relatives have high expectations about Christmas and it can become overwhelming and cause a great deal of anxiety.”
Society also places unrelenting pressure on the season. “People get questioned, ‘Did you put the tree up? Have you done your shopping?’” Ifill-Taylor said. “Christmas on TV can look very shiny. Being bombarded with this in the stores, and from others can be very difficult for many.”
What advice does she have if you are alone during the holidays?
Take action. “One can replace the trappings of Christmas with something else that they very much enjoy. Plan on a cruise at Christmas, watch a Star Wars marathon or some other series that you like with a bucket of popcorn, plan on an activity with a friend who is also alone over the holidays.”
Watch out for SAD. For some, the holiday blues are caused by seasonal affective disorder, a common type of depression that occurs every year as days shorten in the winter. In most patients, it can be treated with an adjustment in medication and light therapy, Ifill-Taylor said.
“Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing,” Ifill-Taylor said. “Many people have SAD and don’t realize it.”
Signs of the disorder include experiencing depression and being unable to function every winter. “If you’re unable to get out of bed and go to work or school or are unable to meet your social obligations specifically during the winter months, you may have seasonal affective disorder.”
Consider treatment. People who are unable to function in daily life or realize their depression is brought on by triggers such as prolonged grief would benefit from seeing a specialist that could provide treatment for them with medication and or psychotherapy.
Find a support group. Ifill-Taylor said there are support groups for people with SAD or people who need help coping with the loss of a loved one. “People in your group with the assistance from the group facilitator can exchange ideas with you and provide suggestions for forward movement when you are depressed and have difficulty thinking through things on your own.”
Fight back. The doctor’s best advice if you know you suffer from mild depression during the holidays: have a plan. “Plan a vacation, go visit a friend out of state, reach out to loved ones, don’t wait for the bad feelings to surround you.”