A Blue ChristmasSept. 10, 2002
Too much family togetherness, too-high expectations and too many memories can result in low spirits for many people during the holiday season, turning glad tidings into sad ones.
Such holiday depression can result from our expectations of what the ideal holiday should be, says Dr. Steven Huprich, assistant professor of psychology in Baylor's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. The media portray the holidays as a time of idyllic family harmony -- a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
"People look at the social construction of the holidays and want that. However, reality is not like the media image, and family conflicts often surface during this time," Dr. Huprich says.
Memories of childhood holidays encoded in our unconscious minds also can cause difficulties, Dr. Huprich says. These memories may trigger expectations of the heightened emotions and anticipation we experienced as children. Because the holidays rarely live up to these fantasies, we are likely to feel disappointed, he says.
Also, the commercialization and idealism of the holidays can make us aware of what we don't have, creating feelings of discontent. "Our wants can be for material things or for more intangible desires such as a different life situation -- including our families and career -- or even for abstract concepts like a more peaceful or stress-free world," he says.
Others susceptible to holiday depression are people without family or social support systems. The greater emphasis on families can magnify feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Low spirits around the holidays may not stem solely from media messages or family situations, but may have a biological cause. Dr. Huprich says there is growing scientific evidence that the shorter daylight hours of winter are linked to a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder. The holidays coincide with the time of year when some individuals experience a depressed mood due to this disorder.
Another factor that can disrupt one's emotional equilibrium is the change in daily routine, he says. The demands of shopping, cooking and entertaining drain one's energy and can contribute to a feeling of sadness.
The best defense against holiday blues is to plan ahead and have realistic expectations, Dr. Huprich says. He suggests people identify what is meaningful about the holidays and focus on those activities.
Putting 'happy' back in the holidays
To help prevent holiday blues, follow these tips from the American Psychological Association and the National Mental Health Association:
-Maintain regular sleep and exercise habits
-Establish a spending limit and stick to it
-Remember that the holiday season is not the time to cure past problems
-Be aware that the holidays often expose family conflicts, so have realistic expectations about your time together
-Remember it's OK not to feel festive, especially if you have
experienced the loss of someone close to you
-Express your feelings to those around you in a constructive and honest manner