Is the upcoming holiday season a time to be…sad?

Every year as I prepare our family, home, yard and car for the expected challenges of the winter season, I think of the many people who do not look forward to winter time and the holiday season with the pleasurable and happy expectations of the joys usually characterized by family, friends and especially unrealistically promoted by various aspects of American media. Thus, I am writing in this pre-holiday season, as I have for many years, about the emotional situations which are concerning and often viewed as Seasonal Affective Disorder/Depression.

Some years ago a brief conversation with a Marshall businessman initiated my thoughts of today’s seasonally-related column. In a brief exchange of ideas, he related his awareness of being overwhelmed at times by the pace and responsibilities of the holiday season, a condition which seemed to him to peak during the first two weeks of December. I shared my recognition of similar conditions, which I had noticed in patients and evidenced in my personal experiences. A review of this condition and its related concerns, anxiety and reactive depression, may be helpful to all of us as we encounter the opportunities and trials of the next several weeks of the season. “The holiday blues” is usually a transient condition but demands our attention but usually not medication.

Depression is a very common affective or mood disorder which is sometimes unappreciated, often transient or short-lived, and usually responsive to the passage of time, simple treatments, or, infrequently, medications. The Merck Manual, a modern version of the “Home Medical Advisor” of earlier generations defines this situation well in stating: “Transient depression (“the blues“) may occur as a reaction to certain holidays or significant anniversaries…Such reactions are not abnormal, but persons predisposed to depression may be (afflicted) during such times.” Depression and/or anxiety/depression in its more severe forms can be a serious medical illness requiring specific medications and psychiatric consultation. Its treatment often requires more than “self-help.” Notably however, Seasonal Affective Depression (SAD) is often a problem during the winter months, but it may be a more serious and chronic illness. It has been the subject of this column in past holiday seasons.

Generally, in helping people with situational or transient depression, an appreciation and recognition of the illness by the patient, family and friends and a caring and friendly interest and conversation can be the most therapeutic modalities. Gently educating an involved individual about the condition of the “holiday blues” may be greatly helpful. Most of us feel we are the only ones who are sad because we have lost a friend or relative who used to be a part of our holiday celebration or have undergone another type of loss…and everyone else seems to be so happy. The world situation, magnified by 24-hour news networks and “talking heads,” may lead to our thinking only of the less pleasant aspects of our lives such as the responsibilities, deadlines, and unmet needs of the holiday times. The hustle and bustle of this season, superimposed upon our often frenetic daily schedules, may shut out the good news of this special time. How often we race to write our Christmas greetings, but then do not take the time to enjoy the missives sent back to us relating the happy news of the lives of our friends and relatives.

Many people have had the experience that the best therapy for the “holiday blues” has been directing our efforts away from self-orientation, recrimination, and pity to rewarding positive efforts directed toward others, often on a one-to-one basis. For example, is there someone in your family, your neighborhood, or in a living status who would enjoy a holiday visit, a ride to church or a social event, or a special food item? Family and friends who are hospitalized or live in a residential /long term care facility greatly appreciate a visit during this season. Perhaps your church or social group needs your help at this busy holiday season, and the local food shelf would appreciate your donations. Multiple agencies at this time can use volunteer help in completing their mission. Remember the poignant lessons of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the good feelings which its message engenders in us.

Whether the positive message is coming from yourself, your family, each other, social agencies, Bethlehem or another religious source, take time to appreciate the spirit and direction of this holiday season and optimize its beneficial effects to all of us. This year, I notice that a GriefShare group here in Marshall is conducting a topical and often beneficial program called “Surviving the Holidays” about the dynamics, frequency and treatment of this benign but often troubling common transient situation. Check with Holy Redeemer Church for details.

May all of you enjoy the spirit and joys of this upcoming season and a Blessed Christmas holiday season and peaceful New Year!