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Keep your holiday cheer at this time of year

Posted Dec 22 2009 6:02am
The holidays are portrayed as a happy time of celebration. But it's not true for everyone - especially those who have mental illnesses, and even more so in today’s economic climate.

One of every four residents has a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, which can be exacerbated during the holiday season and further intensified in reaction to financial stress, mental health professionals say.

Regardless of the time of year or the economy, it is critical to manage mental and physical health, recognize signs of mental illness and seek help when needed.

Anyone could experience holiday blues, especially if they experience high levels of stress. During this time of year, stress is commonly related to having unrealistically high expectations for the holidays, said Debra Wentz, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Inc.

"But this year, it could be even worse because of the turbulent economy,” she said. “It is vitally important for everyone to take steps to manage their stress levels, which can greatly impact both mental and physical health.”

Stress can be reduced by managing what can be controlled. For example, expenses, such as gifts and entertainment, can be reduced. Healthy practices, such as exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep, are also helpful in managing stress, in addition to offering many physical health benefits, professionals say.

Stress and depression can also be related to increased use of alcohol or drugs, especially for individuals who are in the early stages of recovery from addictions. The holidays, with the accompanying stress or social more situations, can also lead to increased drug or alcohol use, professionals say.

Professional help may be needed if any of the following signs become evident:

- persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood;
- changes in sleep patterns;
- reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain; and
- loss of pleasure and interest in once-enjoyable activities; restlessness or irritability.

It is important to realize that most of these symptoms also indicate holiday blues, professionals say. However, holiday blues will dissipate when the season ends and people return to daily routines and no longer experience holiday-related stress. By contrast, depression is indicated by these symptoms lasting for two weeks or longer.

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