Monday, November 25, 2013

Beating The Holiday Blues

The holidays are here. It’s the happiest time of the year, right? For some, the answer is a resounding “yes.” For others, the holidays bring into sharp focus how desperately unhappy they feel.

Depression isn’t just about feeling sad. It’s a clinical disorder that warrants medical attention and can affect physical health. Without help, it’s like a car getting stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels to get out, and instead, only getting in deeper. What’s more, once someone suffers a bout of depression and has managed to get past it, the depression may return, making it even more difficult to find a way to move past the new set of challenges.

The holidays are a prime time for depression. We all can imagine the perfect holiday gathering with the perfect holiday meal, and the perfect family on perfect behavior. We see images of it in the media: the traditional, happy family gathered around the holiday table, or the tree surrounded by loads of wrapped gifts.

The problem with these idyllic images that we see repeated in movies, on TV shows and in retail ads is simply that reality doesn’t measure up. Instead, depression shows up, an unwanted and uninvited holiday guest that thrives on a certain confluence of factors that typically comes together over the holidays:

• Stress from unrealistically high expectations

• Comparison to how it used to be

• Distance from family and friends

• Overemphasis on one day instead of the season

• Financial pressure of buying gifts

• Overcommercialization of the holiday

• A lack of meaning

When holiday expectations collide with reality, it can be particularly depressing. A frenzy of shopping, cooking, houseguests, familial conflicts, credit card debt and separation from loved ones can all contribute to exhaustion and depression. What may seem fun to one person is overwhelming for another. Sometimes it’s just too much to deal with, so we don’t. We get depressed and shut down.

Warning Signs of Depression

Depression affects the body and mind. Here are some warning signs:

• Insomnia

• Excessive sleep

• Fatigue/lack of energy

• Indecisiveness

• Lack of direction or purpose

• Difficulty concentrating

• Inability to cope with challenges

• Self-inflicted injury

• Talking about suicide or feelings of worthlessness

• Suicide attempts

Depression, Drugs and Alcohol

Depression increases the risk of alcohol or drug abuse. It’s very common, especially among teens and males in particular, to find clinical depression co-occurring with alcohol and drug abuse.

Alcohol is a depressant. It depresses the brain and nervous system, leaving the drinker feeling worse, despite the fact that it temporarily lowers levels of stress hormones. Someone who is depressed shouldn’t drink, as drinking can intensify negative feelings, making a person feel morose.

Regardless of our better judgment to stay away from alcohol when we’re depressed, time and time again, when people are upset or feeling down, they get drunk. “I just want to get wasted” is a common escapist response to a stressful situation, especially for a teen or young adult. A drinking binge is almost excused for someone who is facing life difficulties. Particularly as parents of teens, we should be challenging this dangerous coping mechanism.

Alcohol use in males generally happens before the onset of depression, whereas with females, depression generally comes before alcohol use. Alcohol use can be a means of self-medication to blunt feelings, or it can be a cry for help. Drinking often goes hand-in-hand with unintentional injury due to poor judgment, and with intentional injury due to feelings of worthlessness.

It’s important to be aware that alcohol is within easy reach of your teen, and even more so during the holidays. The holidays are a great excuse for alcohol consumption. It’s an acceptable form of “holiday cheer” and a way to try to escape feeling sad. As parents of teens, this is the time to be extra vigilant about alcohol use, not only due to the increased pressures of the season, but also alcohol’s availability. Parties with free-flowing alcohol, older teens who purchase alcohol and parents’ stock of alcohol offer easy access.

The holidays are also a good time to talk to your teen about drinking at parties and ask them how they cope with friends who are drunk. Ask your teen if he ever feels compelled to take a drink due to stress or anxiety. These discussions can help open the door to figuring out what’s really going on with your teen. If you sense that there’s a deep, underlying problem, look for signs of depression. Today’s teens face a minefield of challenges in coping with the pressures of life.


Cutting is a way to inflict harm in the form of tissue damage. Cutting and other forms of self-injury can be a sign of depression. Self-injury often starts in the teen years and is more common among girls. A typical cutter isn’t the “goth” on the corner. It’s actually an educated female who wants to please people and can’t live up to expectations.

Cutting, other forms of self-injury and putting oneself in danger are signs that should not be ignored. These behaviors may signal:

• An attempt to alter one’s mood

• A desperate plea for help or attention

• A way to express feelings of worthlessness

• A way to express or stop emotional pain

• A way to cope with pressure to be perfect

• A way to express the pain from past physical abuse

• A way to feel something when a person otherwise feels emotionally numb

• A way to equalize emotional pain with physical pain

• A sign of suicidal thoughts

Cutting is psychologically addictive behavior. It makes the person feel better while she’s hurting herself. Painful stimulation also releases endorphins, so there’s some degree of physical relief that results from cutting.

How to Help

A common myth is that talking about your problems will make you feel worse. Talking with supportive, caring friends and knowledgeable professionals is often a positive step, preferable to keeping the negative feelings bottled up. The negative feelings don’t go away by themselves. It’s important to encourage people who are suffering to get evaluated for depression.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that depression affects 17 million Americans a year. It’s also estimated that one in four women and one in eight men will experience depression in their lifetime. Clinical depression isn’t something to just sleep off or snap out of.

About 25 million people a year seek treatment for depression in the U.S. That’s about double what it used to be 15 years ago. The numbers are staggering, yet oftentimes, depression is missed as a diagnosis. When it is diagnosed, treatment for depression may include antidepressants and psychotherapy.

If you suspect that someone you care about is suffering from depression, do something about it. Get that person to a medical professional with a strong track record for treating patients with depression. You may be saving their life.

Author: Lori Enomoto

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