Beating the Holiday Blues

With the holiday season in full swing, many people find themselves battling a form of the “holiday blues.” One expert explains why we might feel depressed at this time of year and what we can do to counteract it.

According to Ronald M. Podell, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist who served over 20 years as a clinical faculty member at UCLA, there are two different kinds of holiday blues. The first affects those who are alone. These individuals may have no nearby relatives, are estranged from their families, are new to a community or their friends are away for the holiday. They may feel isolated and abandoned during the holiday season.

The second form of holiday blues, Podell explained, emerges during reunions over the holidays. These reunions may cause a repeat of the same dysfunctional family relationships that have been in place for years.

“When we are young,” Podell explained, “the emotions of traumatic experiences are coded by the brain into neuro-chemical messages and stored in memory nodes. They become a permanent part of the brain.”

If an event or experience reawakens that trauma, the person re-experiences the same emotions that came from the childhood trauma. This form of the holiday blues therefore is not about being alone but being trapped in old trauma. Entire families can become affected and people may begin reacting automatically, which generates waves of negative, contagious emotions.

Painful Reminders

Cultural myths and expectations tell us we have to go home for the holidays and we have to forgive even if we were once hurt. Similarly, the same culture tells us that we should feel joyous and merry. What is the message to someone who is depressed, anxious and ambivalent at best about reliving painful memories?

Podell points out that these reminders can be a trigger for unresolved issues such as unsettled grief, disappointment, a sense of isolation and loneliness and memories of past losses (such as divorce, break up, psychological abuse or death of a family member).

Often, the holiday blues are a result of unrealistically high expectations of the “perfect” holiday mixed with memories of holidays past, loved ones no longer present and the harsh reality of the current situation. In addition to feelings of gloom, loneliness, depression and anxiety, symptoms of the holiday blues may include the inability to sleep, excessive sleeping, changes in appetite resulting in weight gain or loss, lack of clarity and focus and decreased interest in activities that bring pleasure.

Treatment Options

According to Podell, there are many alternative treatments for the holiday blues, including education, support and short-term psychotherapy. These options, combined with biological treatments that address brain chemistry disequilibrium, help clarify family dynamics and can ease distress a great deal.

Podell also offers the following recommendations:

  • Learn to understand the dynamics of troubling relationships that the holidays bring back into our lives.
  • Disconnect from people who prompt feelings of anger, depression and anxiety.
  • Take responsibility for your part of the interaction and refuse to exacerbate a process that repeatedly leads to despair and anger. Be proactive rather than reactive.
  • Write in a journal daily and list daily reminders of blessings.
  • Associate with happy people and surround yourself with positive emotions. Findings show that being around upbeat people can boost one’s spirits through mood infection.
  • Volunteer and give back to create feelings of spiritual joy.
  • Participate in activities and hobbies that bring pleasure and relaxation.

Finally, be sure to check in with your health care provider if you are feeling depressed, anxious or experiencing insomnia.

Podell is author of Contagious Emotions – Staying Well When Your Loved One Is Depressed.

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