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Holiday blues and serious depression: Know the difference

Posted Oct 22 2008 4:32pm

While many people experience holiday blues, more than 19 million Americans of all ages suffer from depression and are likely to have even more severe symptoms during the holidays, compared to other times of the year, health professionals say.

It is essential to recognize the difference between holiday blues and serious depression and to know about support that is available all year long, according to the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Inc.

NJAMHA says it's dedicated to helping children and adults recover from depression and other mental illnesses.

“Anyone could experience holiday blues. Perhaps they are not able to be with family members or they experience high levels of stress, which could be related to having unrealistically high expectations for the holidays," said Debra L. Wentz, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of NJAMHA.

"These types of issues could be alleviated by making time for ourselves, setting realistic expectations and trying to share special family memories. For thousands of children and adults, however, depression during the holiday season or any other time of the year is much more serious,”

She added: “If anyone shows a lack of interest in usual activities, sleep disturbances, weight changes or physical symptoms for several weeks, they should see a healthcare professional to determine if they have clinical depression. Treatments and other support are available and have been proven effective. However, without treatment, depression can lead to many serious complications, such as physical illness, drug or alcohol addiction or suicidal thoughts.”

Symptoms of holiday blues are similar to signs of depression: sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, agitation, anxiety, feelings of guilt, difficulty concentrating and decreased interest in activities that are usually enjoyable.

However, a prominent distinction between holiday blues and depression is the length of time these symptoms persist. Holiday blues last from a few days to a few weeks prior to or just after the holiday season, when people return to daily routines and no longer experience stress that is common around the holidays.

Holiday depression or stress could contribute to a tendency for increased use of alcohol or drugs, especially for individuals who are in the early stages of recovery from addictions. Drug or alcohol abuse is commonly associated with not only depression, but also suicide, accidents and domestic violence during the holiday season.

“In addition to having strategies for relieving stress, individuals can try to avoid situations that cause stress or alcohol or drug cravings. Having at least one friend or family member to provide support is equally important,” said Dr. Wentz.

The following are additional tips for during the holidays:

▪ Eat well to build energy and reduce cravings. However, to satisfy a strong urge for something that is sweet or contains alcohol, enjoy sweet foods and non-alcoholic drinks in moderation instead.

▪ Avoid or limit attendance at parties where alcohol will be served.

▪ Relieve stress with sleep, exercise, music, scheduled down time and avoidance of arguments.

▪ Have realistic expectations for how much money is spent on gifts and how much time is dedicated to family and social obligations.

▪ Seek professional help when needed to cope with depression or stress not only during the holiday season, but also any time throughout the year.

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