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Preventing and coping with holiday depression

Chad Sparkes

It’s that time of year again to spread joy for all to hear—or so you’re told. Although the holiday season can create happy memories, it can also be a stressful time and leave many with feelings of depression for various reasons.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Ken Duckworth talks about holiday depression, what may cause it, and how to support those who suffer from it. Duckworth is the medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and is also an assistant clinical professor at Harvard University Medical School.

Much of the feelings that can create holiday depression, creep up because many feel the reality of the holidays doesn’t match up to commercialized expectations, according to Duckworth. This can be considered a psychological component to the issue. However, Duckworth also acknowledges a seasonal component.

Change in season can often create mood disorders in many, with the most prevalent disorders caused from winter.

“There are mood disorders that are more prevalent in winter for some people. This is called seasonal effective disorder back in the day, now it’s called seasonal pattern to recurrent major depression,” Duckworth said.

According to Duckworth, only one percent of people experience this in Florida, compared to 10 percent in more northern regions where the effects of winter are more predominant.

“So there’sa psychological phenomenon, which I don’t think has been well researched in terms of how common it is. Then there’s the mood disorder known as depression, which about 10 percent of people experience a year,” Duckworth said. “Then there’s another subset of people that do fine most of the year, but have a seasonal component.”

Although Duckworth says many of those whose depression worsens with the holidays can be more affected by light cues, rather than the pressure to be joyful during what can be a stressful time, the two run together and can be hard to tell apart. So someone could simply be depressed that every time they go outside the sun isn’t shining and four layers of clothing are required.

But aside from those who may be depressed by the weather, the holiday season does have the ability to bring the memories of tragic events to the forefront of the brain for many. For example, those who have previously lost a friend or relative can be reminded of the tragedy in much of what the media portrays.

“You get these cards and you get these images presented to you. [For example], Thanksgiving: the apocryphal, happy Thanksgiving. Well if you’ve just gotten divorced and you don’t have your kids, or if you’ve lost a parent who’s special to you—these are I would say common mismatches from what people experience and what they’re encouraged to consider as a commercial ideal,” Duckworth said.

Since this may be what some experience, Duckworth says it’s important to remember that the holidays may be challenging for some people. Feelings of depression can also become more stressful with the disruption of schedule for things like parties, events, and shopping.

To try and prevent holiday depression Duckworth suggests limiting intake of media, such as watching less television, limiting the number of holiday events or tasks you do in a week, comparing previous years so you know what to avoid, and going gentle on yourself.