Healthy Manhattan: Depression Has Company During the Holidays

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If Thanksgiving celebrations left you feeling low and the upcoming festive season is stressing you out, just know that you are not alone. ‘Tis also the season for holiday depression.

Upper West Side psychologist Jay A. Seitz said he sees a definite spike in the number of patients coming to his office this time of year. Altogether, he said 25 percent of people feel some kind of holiday “anxiety, panic or depression.”

“In the holiday season people are anxious about being alone, being with family, taking care of presents and relatives,” he said. “They’re feeling down and they don’t know why.”

Dr. Seitz said that the cold and dark winter days may also add to the gloom and doom of it all, in the form of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Experts estimate that SAD affects anywhere from 6 to 10 percent of Americans every winter.

Jakob Meydan, a psychologist on the Upper East Side, said the holidays make people realize what’s missing from their lives. Some will spend the festive season completely alone, others with a family that isn’t exactly the spitting image of The Brady Bunch.

“It takes one dysfunctional family member to ruin the holiday for the entire family,” Dr. Meydan said. People who are rude, insensitive or mean to others fall into this category.

Some folks feel stressed out because they fear that family members will pry into their personal affairs during group gatherings, said Meydan. Others may have always felt like an outsider and that “becomes more palpable when the family gets together.”

Lisa Schnall, a clinical social worker and therapist on the Upper West Side, points out that holiday depression is sometimes just normal depression that is triggered by the season’s emphasis on togetherness.

“This is when you are pressured to be with your family,” she said. “It makes you conscious of what you have and what you don’t.”

Schnall said many people fantasize about having a big family. “So often that is not the case, the connections aren’t there,” she said.

To combat the feelings of loneliness, Meydan said you might be tempted to turn to drinking, drugs or aggressive behavior. You may want to invite people over who have hurt you in the past or resort to one-night stands, just to avoid being alone. These approaches, he said, “may not be in your best interest.”

Instead, he recommends sticking to your everyday routines as much as possible, such as exercising. He also suggests expressing your feelings to a person you trust and taking long walks whenever negative emotions come up.

When spending time with family members with whom you don’t get along, “try to maintain a positive attitude by looking at the glass as half full,” Meydan said.

When
situations get tense, he advises moving away from the scene. Also,
“attribute insults to the other person’s ignorance, rather than
disrespect towards you.”

Meydan
said that another way to alleviate the stress of family gatherings is
to bypass them altogether. “Spend time with people you care about and
who care about you, even if they are not family members,” he suggested.

Whatever you decide to do during the holidays, it’s also good to have a plan B in case plan A doesn’t work out, Meydan said.

Seitz
said there’s not a whole lot you can do to keep holiday depression at
bay, if you are prone to it. While exercising and avoiding overeating
may help a little, they aren’t be-all, end-all solutions.

“I don’t think you can do anything to prevent it,” said Seitz. “I think it’s inevitable.”

He
said he sees another spike in depression patients right after the
holidays are over in January. But from February onwards, “things change,
things dissipate.” By the time summer rolls around, most people are too
busy enjoying the great outdoors to feel down, he said.

Schnall
suggests taking an inventory of your life during the holiday season and
figuring out what it is that’s making you feel lonely. If you are
isolated, think about the reasons why you aren’t connected to people.

“Is
it loneliness inside of you or outside of you?” she asked. Sometimes
you may also benefit from seeking professional help. Schnall said that
this might be the case if you continually feel dissatisfied or stuck in
your life, or are always angry.

Lastly, Schnall said holidays don’t have to mean the onset of depression, especially if your life situation hasn’t changed.

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