Happy Holiday? Tips for keeping the season merry and bright

December 2011/January 2012 View more

NMAG1211_HealthThe song says it’s the “most wonderful time of the year,” but for some people, the holidays bring feelings of sadness and depression.

“With the downturn of the economy, I have seen escalating stress, depression, and a sense of deprivation among patients around the holiday season,” said Dr. Fatima Z. Ali, clinical director of the outpatient program and co-director of the eating disorder program at Linden Oaks Hospital.

Holiday Stressors

The holidays intensify our normal stress level about our finances, our family, and ourselves, says Dr. Ali. “Holiday commercialization pressures people who have lost their jobs or bonuses to still buy a lot for their family,” she says. “Holiday financial difficulties can force us to put our holiday travel plans on hold or say goodbye to a pet that we can no longer afford.”

Emotionally, we are obligated to do extra things during the holidays, like arrange and attend special events and family gatherings. Some families have emotional landmines, like estranged members, rifts, or unpleasant memories of abuse or loss associated with the holidays. The season’s emphasis on children is a painful reminder for childless couples or grieving parents. Blended families feel pressure to be everywhere for everyone. Meanwhile, when the holiday greeting cards arrive, we start to compare our lives to others’ and begin to feel dissatisfied.

Stress Relief Rx

Dr. Ali says it’s hard to prevent these feelings, but by simplifying plans as much as possible and setting limits on spending, we can put ourselves in a better position to manage our feelings. “Stepping up is easy for us, stepping down is hard,” she says. “Reevaluate your priorities and only retain the meaningful. Make a budget and don’t buy on credit to eliminate big bills later. Let go of anything that is not truly valuable.”

Basic physical wellness also keeps us mentally healthy, she says, so getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night, exercising for short periods four times per week, and eating six small, nutritionally balanced meals daily are all important. Sleep deprived people are more prone to clinical depression and blood-sugar disturbances, and exercise relieves stress and releases endorphins, a chemical that makes us feel good. Eating small meals throughout the day stabilizes our blood sugar and our moods.

Making time for mediation, yoga, and spending time with friends who lift your spirits are also great stress relievers, Dr. Ali says. Laughter is great medicine too, and she suggests ending the day with a funny book or show, instead of a negative news broadcast.

Volunteering to help others in need helps us, too. We receive a sense of well-being and it physiologically heightens the chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in our brain, which are depleted in the depressed person. We also gain a better perspective on our lives as we see how fortunate we really are.

SAD and Depressed

“For many of my patients, January and February are the most difficult months because the celebrations are over, they’re dealing with the holiday bills, and the days are shortest,” says Dr. Ali.

“SAD,” or seasonal affective disorder, is a response to the shorter days and fading sunlight of the winter months that affects an estimated 10 to 20 percent of Americans, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Symptoms are depression-like in nature and include irritability, a loss of pleasure in usual activities, sleep and appetite disturbances, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, self-hate and guilt, lack of energy, and repeated thoughts of death and suicide. SAD cyclically appears in the winter months and leaves when spring arrives. Patients are treated with medication or light therapy (exposure to periods of full spectrum light throughout the day).

While a mild case of “holiday blues” is common and passes quickly, Dr. Ali warns that people experiencing depression symptoms that interfere with their ability to function for more than two weeks should seek medical attention. Private therapy and local support groups are other resources available for those needing help with seasonal depression.

Local emotional health support programs

Please confirm place and time of meetings with the facilities.



Wednesdays, 5:30 p.m.
Edward Hospital
Linden Oaks Treatment Center, Room 115
852 West Street, Naperville

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) CONNECTION RECOVERY SUPPORT GROUP


Wednesdays, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield
Behavioral Health Services Building, Room 131
25 North Winfield Road, Winfield

Thursdays, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Good Samaritan Hospital
North Pavilion (Building 4), Cancer Care Conference Room
3815 South Highland Avenue, Downers Grove