For many Americans, yuletide pressures can make the holidays seem more melancholy than merry. Sixty-five percent of Gen Xers and 62 percent of Baby Boomers get stressed at this time, according to a 2015 survey by Healthline.com, and the tensions aren’t just about traffic-jammed trips to the mall. The holidays can also magnify feelings of loneliness and loss.
“People are a little overwhelmed and more vulnerable to depression during the holidays,” says Dr. Jeffrey Meyerhoff, a psychiatrist with Optum health services. “It’s an emotional time for people, and they put unrealistic expectations on themselves, which creates stress.”
Dr. Meyerhoff speaks from first-hand experience: His mother began a lifelong battle with depression during her childhood, a condition that improved only when she began seeing a psychiatrist, and was taken off addictive drugs such as Valium after being hospitalized for a medical condition.
“It completely changed her,” says Meyerhoff, the Oregon-based Senior National Medical Director for Optum Behavioral Health, “She suddenly woke up, she was getting out of bed, she was doing volunteer work—she had a zest for life I had never seen before.” That zest is what we all should be feeling during the holidays.
To help boost your mental health during the holidays and beyond, Life Reimagined asked Dr. Meyerhoff to share his advice on depression. Here are his suggestions for avoiding the holiday blues—and for getting help.
Cut Holiday Stress
The problem: Holiday hassles can weigh heavier than a Christmas ham. In a 2013 poll of people’s top holiday gripes, 61 percent called crowds and long lines their top complaint, while another 54 percent cited traffic, according to the Consumer Reports National Research Center. In the Healthline.com survey, financial pressures were the chief source of stress at the holidays.
See also: Holiday Survival Guide
Dr. Meyerhoff’s advice: For mild depression and stress, many psychiatrists now emphasize mindfulness—living your life more deliberately, focusing on your well-being, and not overwhelming yourself. Before you take on another task, ask yourself: Is it going to bring you pleasure? If you’re stressed during the holidays, cut back on your obligations. If you usually decorate your entire house, just do your living room instead. Create new traditions. Take a hike. Go skiing. Instead of hosting a big party, volunteer somewhere. And support friends and family who are feeling stress. Let them know that you just want to spend time with them—you don’t need a special meal or elaborate decorations. Showing that support to someone who’s stressed—and potentially depressed—can change the course of the holidays.
Did you know? Volunteering doesn’t just reduce depression, it can lower your risk of hypertension, improve your overall health and boost longevity, according to a 2014 review of 73 studies by researchers at the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute in Canada.
Manage Loneliness and Loss
The problem: The holidays are an emotional time (and not just because your family drives you crazy). Loneliness and grief can feel more acute during the holidays, and long-term loneliness can affect your health: Loneliness is twice as harmful as obesity and it’s the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to research by professors Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy Smith of Brigham Young University.
Dr. Meyerhoff’s advice: Loneliness contributes to depression, so when your friends or family lose someone important, encourage them to develop their social networks and reengage in life, perhaps by joining a support group, a book club or a walking group. Activities like these can help reduce the intensity of loneliness. And if you’ve lost someone, make the holidays a time of remembrance. Create a tradition tied to your loved one’s memory, from giving to charity to lighting a special candle. The web site WhatsYourGrief.com offers a unique suggestion: Make a memory tablecloth, asking holiday guests to write memories about loved ones, using laundry-proof pens.
Did you know? Lonely people’s social skills, such as reading nonverbal cues, are as stronger or stronger than those of people who aren’t lonely, a set of four studies by researchers at Franklin & Marshall College found in 2015. The problem? Lonely people often feel nervous in social situations. They possess the tools to interact with others, but they need to reduce their performance anxiety in social settings.
Weather Seasonal Affective Disorder
The problem: The winter solstice is December 21—shortest day of the year—and for many people, the reduction in light brings seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that’s related to the changes in seasons. The amount of daylight people experience between sunrise and sunset has a bigger impact on mental health than other weather variables, such as extreme temperatures, rainy days and thick air pollution, according to a newly published study of over 16,000 adults by researchers at Brigham Young University.
Dr. Meyerhoff’s advice: Increase your exposure to bright light; light therapy often leads to improvements in two weeks or less. Try going outside more during daytime hours or sitting in front of a light box for about 30 minutes each morning. Exercise and antidepressants can help as well if the problem becomes more severe.
Did you know? Ask your doctor whether you should consider a vitamin D supplement. In a review of 100 articles, researchers at three universities found a link between vitamin D deficiency and seasonal affective disorder.
See also: Why It's Important to Celebrate. A lot.
Exercise To Ease Depression
The problem: Cold weather, holidays parties, and lengthy to-do lists can make it hard to exercise during the holidays—but exercise is extremely important for your mental health.
Dr. Meyerhoff’s advice: Just 30 minutes a day of activity—as simple as walking—can make a huge difference in your outlook and how you feel. Physical activity releases endorphins, which reduce anxiety and make you feel good. You won’t cure depression with exercise, but countless studies show that it lowers the intensity of depression. Going from no exercise to just a daily 10-minute walk is a dramatic change that can improve your mental health.
Did you know? Exercise coupled with meditation can be a potent way to ease depression. An eight-week program involving 30 minutes of meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, twice a week, reduced depression symptoms by 40 percent in a Rutgers University study.
“If you’re stressed during the holidays, cut back on your obligations. If you usually decorate your entire house, just do your living room. Instead of hosting a big party, volunteer somewhere.”
Celebrate the Right Way
The problem: Booze is often plentiful at parties, but alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that causes depression. It also interferes with sleep, which can hurt your mental health.
Dr. Meyerhoff’s advice: It’s okay to have a cup of eggnog at parties, but try to limit your intake. People who are depressed tend to rely on substances to cope, and this can become an unfortunate cycle: Using substances to deal with depression will ultimately lead to more depression. You need to break out of that rut and see a professional for treatment. Diet also plays a role. It’s not the primary cause of depression, but the better you make yourself feel, the better you cope. Getting the proper nutrients, and eating healthy foods—foods that don’t make you feel lethargic—is critical. You don’t have to feel guilty about your diet; just eat those Christmas cookies in moderation.
Did you know? Eating a healthy diet can prevent the onset of depression. In a 2015 study of 15,093 people conducted by the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain, those who ate a Mediterranean diet or a diet high in fruits, veggies, legumes, and nuts—and one that featured few processed meats—lowered their risk of depression.
Find Your Best Treatment
The problem: Your holiday blues may be a sign of something more serious. The warning signs for depression include:
- Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
- Finding it harder to wake up and finish the day
- Having less energy
- Sleeping poorly—or feeling like you want to sleep all the time
- Struggling to focus and experiencing memory problems
- Coping less effectively with stress and becoming more irritable
- Experiencing changes in your appetite, whether eating more or less
Dr. Meyerhoff’s advice: When depression interferes with your daily life—work, school, relationships—it’s time to seek treatment. Anytime you think life isn’t worth living, or you’re thinking about death or suicide, you need to talk with a professional (the Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers a depression screening test).
There are two major treatments for depression: psychotherapy and medication. Your best option is probably a combination of both. Work with your therapist or psychiatrist to customize your treatment. The seven common rating scales that doctors use to diagnose depression show little overlap and feature 52 different symptoms, researchers at the University of Amsterdam recently found. Depression symptoms can vary from person to person, and treatments aren’t one-size-fits-all.
About 70 to 80 percent of people respond well to medications. Finding the best prescription can involve trial and error: You may need to try different antidepressants before finding the right one. Medication can become effective over a period of weeks, whereas psychotherapy might take months. But you need to keep taking the medication or your depression will return. Patients frequently say, “Well I felt better, so I stopped the medication.” That’s a problem. Medication is a treatment, not a cure.
Did you know? The treatments work! And that’s the good news about depression: it is extremely treatable and some of the newest drugs have minimal side effects. The benefits can extend to your physical health. A 10-year study of more than 7,000 adults published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2016 found that depression can increase your risk of heart disease or stroke. Some people see depression as a weakness rather than an illness, but there’s no reason to suffer. Help is available and you can feel better.
Ken Budd is the former Executive Editor of AARP The Magazine and the host of 650,000 Hours, a digital series on travel and giving back debuting in 2017.