Written by: Debra B. Johnson executive director of St. Clair County Community Mental Health.
Most people expect the year-end holidays to be a happy time. However, some individuals may experience the holiday blues, which may leave them confused and unsure of how to address their feelings. An individual experiencing depression may convince themselves that what they are feeling is just sadness so they may not seek appropriate treatment. But more common is the opposite, where a person is feeling sadness, not depression, and risk overreacting to their emotional state. For this reason it is important to understand the difference between the holiday blues (sadness) and clinical depression.
Sadness is a normal and necessary human emotion. Everyone alive has felt sadness. It is usually caused by difficult, hurtful or disappointing events, experiences and situations. A state of sadness is actually beneficial in the long term because it aids self-reflection and often helps us find meaning in painful moments. Furthermore, when those events, experiences and situations that have made us sad change or time passes, giving us distance and objectivity, our sadness passes as well.
Depression is very different. Depression is not normal. It is a mental illness that alters our thinking, emotions, perceptions and behaviors in a persistent and serious way. While the causes of depression are complex, several common components not present in sadness include biological factors such as faulty mood regulation by the brain and genetic vulnerability. Depression saps our energy, motivation and ability to experience joy, pleasure, excitement, anticipation, satisfaction, connection and meaning. Depression does not require a specific event, experience or situation, can occur in the absence of any trigger, and often is not relieved by the passage of time.
Treating mental health conditions begins with a correct diagnosis. Most people who are blue during the holidays are experiencing sadness, not depression. If you’ve not previously been diagnosed with depression but feel the holiday blues, ask yourself why you might feel this way. A typical cause of the holiday blues is comparing your holiday experience with the unrealistic perfection of Hallmark Christmas movies, where in two hours all problems and issues are resolved, familial love abounds and the future looks bright. Few of us have the time or money to create the picture-perfect Christmases we see in popular media. In reality, while the holiday season is a very special time of year, the memorable experiences of family and friends gathered together exchanging gifts and eating dinner together is often balanced against financial challenges, family discord and too few hours in a day that for many includes a full-time job, school-age children, and providing care to older family members. Dealing with these challenges during the holidays can create stress, anxiety and eventually sadness.
There are several practical ways to address sadness during the holidays. First, accept that your life and schedule may not allow you to do everything you’d like. Decide what parts of the holiday mean the most to you and concentrate of those. Make an active effort not to compare your holiday with what you see on TV — or what you see next door. Remember that every family is different.
Another way to deal with sadness during the holidays is to concentrate on others. Volunteering offers vital help to people in need, worthwhile causes, and the community, but the benefits can be even greater for you. Helping others reduces stress and anxiety and provides a sense of purpose. Here in St. Clair County there are dozens of opportunities to volunteer time, for example working with the elderly through the St. Clair County Council on Aging or working at a food bank like Mid City Nutrition. A full list of local organizations in need of volunteers can be obtained by visiting the website of the St. Clair County United Way.
But helping others doesn’t have to mean working through organizations. You can visit an old friend, call and chat with an aunt or uncle or cousin you haven’t spoken to for a long time, or offer to help a neighbor. It can also be as simple as expressing your appreciation for the people around you by sharing their joys, supporting their hopes and dreams, and offering encouragement to them when they need it.
Best wishes for a very happy and healthy holiday season!
For more information on services at St. Clair County Community Mental Health visit scccmh.org