Vassilis N. Panagopoulos, MD
english ελληνικά

Is depression really common during the Christmas holiday?

The answer is that, yes, it is. There are multiple reasons for this. Below we will analyze a few of the reasons.

The expectation of happiness underlines one's current state of sadness

The general expectation in most Western cultures is that during the holiday season one is supposed to be celebrating and feel happy. But those people who don't feel happy no matter what the reason is tend to experience their sadness more deeply when it seems that everybody else around them appears to be in a festive mood. One of the most common symptoms of depression is the inability to experience pleasure with previously pleasurable activities, a symptom that is called “anhedonia”. For instance, a young man is not able to enjoy playing soccer, spending time with his girlfriend or his friends while he is experiencing an episode of clinical depression. Many people realize the extent of anhedonia that they are experiencing when they find themselves unable to enjoy the festivities of the holiday season. They feel obliged to put a smile on their face when everyone around them seems to be enjoying themselves.

Tips for coping: Don't force your self to be happy during the holiday season. Talk about your problems with your loved ones and try to set realistic goals for solving your problems. Don't judge how other people feel just from the face they show you during the festivities, they most certainly have problems of their own. If you are experiencing a persistently depressed mood for most part of the day almost every day or if you cannot enjoy activities that you normally like for several weeks at a time, then seek help from a mental health professional.

Taking time off to realize your path

During the holidays most people take time off from work or their studies. As a result they have more time to spend with themselves to reflect on their situation. This is especially the case since the end of the year is for many people a time for evaluation of the year that has passed and for setting goals for the new upcoming year. This sometimes leads to the realization of the fact that things are not where we would like them to be leading to the feelings of disappointment and sadness.

Tips for coping: Reflection is better in small and frequent dosages rather than in large dosages once a year. Take some time off from your busy routine to think about the course of your life frequently. This allows you to adapt before you deviate too much from your goals. Reflection is healthy when it is accurate, balanced and when it leads to adaptive change. Be grateful for the things that you have achieved. Do not just focus on what you don't have. If you are not satisfied with your situation, come up with ways to change your situation. But, beware, only set specific, tangible and realistic goals! Setting unrealistic or abstract goals is common and leads to disappointment. Discuss with your support network (family members and/or friends) what's on your mind and accept help if you need it.

The sadness of the distance from the family during the holiday season

There is a strong cultural expectation according to which one should spend the holidays with their family. When this is not possible, often times people feel really sad. Tips for coping: There is no reason why you cannot spend quality time with your family members or loved ones outside of the holiday season if for some reason you cannot meet with them this year. Make time at another time and enjoy their company then. Make alternative plans with other friends or family for this upcoming holiday season. The fact that you cannot spend the holidays with your family this year, does not mean that you have to be alone.

The recurrence of grief for our loves ones who have passed away

Also, many people feel the absence of their family members or their loved ones who have passed away more intensely during the holiday season. This can sometimes lead to reexperiencing a grief reaction during the holiday season. Tips for coping: Your loved ones who have passed away will always have a very special place in your heart. At the same time, they most certainly would like for you to be happy and enjoy the holidays. Share your feelings about how much you miss your loved ones who have passed away with your family and friends, honor them with a prayer, a dedication or say a few words in their memory to your loved ones who are surrounding you now.

Are some forms of depression more common during the wintertime?

Yes, there is a form of major depressive disorder (the scientific term for clinical depression) which is more common in the wintertime. This form is called winter seasonal affective disorder (sometimes referred to as winter depression). In this disorder, clinical episodes of depression tend to occur in late fall and early winter, and resolve during the spring and the summer. Symptoms of depression more typical of this form include: increase in appetite and subsequent weight gain, increase in the duration of sleep, increased sensitivity to interpersonal rejection and a feeling of heaviness of the upper and lower extremities. Statistical surveys indicate that winter seasonal affective disorder affects 4-9% of the population. It should be noted that winter seasonal affective disorder also exists in the Southern Hemisphere and occurs as expected during the corresponding winter months (June, July, August) following a similar pattern of symptomatology.

Therefore, this disorder cannot be caused merely by the stresses of the holiday season, and must have a biological explanation. Indeed, this disorder appears to be related to the reaction of the brain to the significantly decreased exposure to sunlight that happens as the days get shorter and shorter during late fall and early winter. Decreased exposure to sunlight can thus affect mood in a negative manner and even cause depression to some people.

What does the treatment of seasonal affective disorder consist of?

The gold standard of treatment includes light therapy. This involves daily sessions of exposure to bright, broad spectrum, white light for 60-90 minutes per day every morning, and this is usually done at the convenience of one's home. Relatively inexpensive special lamps fulfilling specific light parameters are utilized. Antidepressants and psychotherapy are also effective and are often used.