Prescription for the Holiday Blues

There are all kinds of reasons to love the holidays – and none of them have to do with eggnog, mashed potatoes, or any new gadget you’re hoping to score. I’m like many of you: I associate the holiday season with joy because it’s a time for family, a time for community, and a time when many of us assess our year and make promises about the new one that’s just ahead.

But in my profession, I can’t afford to think in fairy-tale terms – that things are always going to work out fine just because. And for the same reason, I also believe that we have to acknowledge that for many of us out there, the holidays are indeed the most difficult time of the year. Maybe it’s because you’re remembering a lost loved one. Maybe it’s because you’re reminded of the struggles you face every day. Maybe it’s because you let one eggnog in 2010 turn into a bigger belt in 2011. The fact is that many of us have our reasons for feeling blue, anxious, stressed, and even downright depressed during the holidays. And that’s not uncommon.

There are, of course, many different kinds of depression. The ones we most commonly think of are major clinical depression (this is classified by depression lasting for more than two weeks with many of the symptoms I’ll outline below) and situational depression that’s tied to an event, such as a life change or a holiday.

Now, the main biological character involved in all kinds of mood issues is the amygdala, a small almond-shaped part of the brain that processes all of the information you receive and attaches an emotion to it. The amygdala controls fear and anxiety and is really involved in both serious emotional issues and even our everyday mood swings.

Our goal here isn’t to force the amygdala to be on its best behavior because 24 cousins are on their way to your house (you can’t do that anyway). Our goal is to help you understand some signs of depression so that you can ease yourself into a better place.

If you have a significant increase in the following symptoms, experience many at one time, or are having any thoughts about hurting yourself or someone else, it may be a sign that you do indeed need help:

Sleep changeDecreased interest in normal activitiesFeeling guiltyDecreased energy Difficulty concentratingChange in appetite

So what can you do? These tactics can help.

Talk it out: Talking, whether it’s to a friend, a loved one or a professional, seems to be one of the most effective ways to improve mood. The reason: It’s possibly linked to the release of the community-building hormone oxytocin that provides a feel-good effect.

Sweat it out: You may not want to exercise after writing out 792 holiday cards, but you should. A walk or even a more intense sweat session will improve your mood thanks to the endorphins released during a workout.

Have a banana: This is a feel-good food as it helps to improve the effect of another feel-good hormone, serotonin.