Depression can be a year-round struggle, but for many people feelings of hopelessness and isolation spike during the winter holiday season.
Christmas is a time of high expectations — like hosting the perfect family get-together, or finding the perfect gift — but what’s ideal is not always what’s realistic, said Dr. Bruce Anderson, a Napa Valley-based psychiatrist. Setting unrealistic expectations is what makes the holidays “challenging” for a lot of people, Anderson said.
People who beat themselves up when things don’t go as planned are more likely to experience anxiety, said Tina Zoppel, manager of Clinic Ole’s County campus.
“Be gentle with yourself,” Zoppel said. “Don’t have unreasonable expectations.”
The materialism associated with Christmas — which includes the pressure to spend a lot of money — may also lead to depression symptoms, especially for people who don’t have the financial means, Zoppel said.
Instead of getting caught up in a spending spree, Anderson said people need to remind themselves that it’s the people, and not the gifts, that make the holiday special.
“The greatest present is the presence of those we care about,” he said.
But for those who aren’t close to their family, the holiday season can be an isolating time of year.
People tend to compare themselves to others, and when other families seem happy and well-connected, those without close family ties may feel especially lonely, Zoppel said.
Whether it be family or friends, Zoppel said people should try to spend time with those they know and like. Maintain a social connection, even if it’s just meeting someone for coffee, she said. And if possible, avoid difficult people and stay away from those who increase feelings of anxiety or depression, she said.
In addition to the challenges associated with the holidays, people may also experience wintertime depression due to fewer daylight hours.
Winter-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of depression that often begins in the fall and continues into the winter months, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms include increased appetite that leads to weight gain, increased sleep, less energy, loss of interest in activities, feeling sluggish and socially withdrawn, and feeling irritable and unhappy.
Some people are prescribed a special lamp — referred to as light therapy — that mimics the sun’s brightness. Another way to combat these symptoms is taking a 30-minute walk in the morning, Anderson said.
“Just ordinary daylight makes a difference,” Anderson said. “It’s good for anxiety as well as depression.”
Staying physically active — whether indoors or out — is good for the mind as well as the body, Zoppel said.
“Exercise is great for your mood,” she said.
Seeing a therapist or being prescribed certain medications may also be beneficial for people who have persistent feelings of anxiety and depression.
Whichever way people decide to manage their symptoms, Zoppel said it’s important to remember that the winter holiday season is only temporary.
“It may be tough now, but it’s not going to be tough forever,” she said. “Spring is going to come.”