December 10, 2009

Holiday Blues That Linger Could Be Warning Sign of Depression

Psychologists urge people to keep check on their feelings this holiday season

WASHINGTON — From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, there are many wishes for everyone to have a blissful and celebratory holiday season. But for many people, the holidays bring more misery than mirth, particularly at a time when the ailing economy can’t seem to recover quickly enough and money worries remain on people’s minds.

With the high expectations for gift-giving, decorating, feasting and family gathering, holiday-related stress and the “holiday blues”—feelings of disappointment, sadness, fatigue or frustration—are not unusual. Spending time with difficult family members, grieving the loss of a loved one, feeling pressure to give gifts when finances are tight and even loneliness can leave people feeling sad, angry or even depressed.

But psychologists point out that there is a difference between the holiday blues, which are often temporary and go away once the season ends, and more serious conditions such as depression, seasonal affective disorder and anxiety disorders. And for those who already have a psychological problem, the stresses of the holiday season can make things worse. Even “having fun” can be stressful on mind and body, especially if that fun involves missing sleep or overindulging in alcohol or “party foods.”

“No one can feel happy and joyous all the time, even if that’s what we feel pressured to experience,” said Katherine Nordal, PhD, executive director of professional practice at the American Psychological Association (APA). “There are several things we can all do to help fight off those blue feelings. Make sure your holiday expectations are realistic—avoid overextending yourself and your budget. If a close family member or friend is no longer living, you may want to find ways to recognize that person and start new traditions. Try to maintain some of your normal routine. Pay attention to your feelings. If you can’t seem to shake the blues, your feelings may be about other things in your life.”

Depression occurs when feelings of extreme sadness or despair last for at least two weeks or longer and when they interfere with activities of daily living such as working or even eating and sleeping. Depressed individuals tend to feel helpless, hopeless about changing their situation. If the holiday blues seem to linger or become more intense, people may want to seek help from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist. Research shows that psychotherapy is an effective treatment for depression. A psychologist can help determine if someone has depression and how best to treat it.

“Unlike the holiday blues, depression doesn’t often go away on its own,” Nordal said. “Many people don’t recognize that they are depressed, and it can be treated very effectively.”

Psychologists have the professional training and clinical skills to appropriately assess the situation and to help people learn to cope more effectively with life problems by using techniques based on best available research and considering an individual’s unique values, goals and circumstances. Psychologists are licensed by the state in which they practice.With doctoral degrees, they receive one of the highest levels of education of all health care professionals, spending an average of seven years in education and training after they receive their undergraduate degrees.

For more information about depression and holiday stress or to find a psychologist visit the APA Help Center. And, follow the APA Help Center at www.twitter.com/APAHelpCenter and read APA’s Mind/Body Health campaign blog.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession, and as a means of promoting health, education, and human welfare.