It’s the most wonderful time of the year… well, not for everyone. While images of love and joy fill storefronts, TV screens and magazine pages, for many people, the reality of the holidays isn’t so cheerful. As we kickoff the holiday season starting with Thanksgiving and into Christmas high expectations, money woes, and other holiday hazards can spell trouble for anyone, but especially those prone to depression. The myth has been repeated so many times, most people consider it common knowledge: more people commit suicide between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of the year. Although it sounds reasonable,it simply isn’t true (springtime is actually the peak).
Contrary to popular belief, December actually has the fewest suicide attempts of any month of the year. The facts, while seemingly encouraging, may be more complicated, however. While it’s true that suicide attempts tend to drop off just before and during the holidays, there is a significant uptick in suicide rates following Christmas—a 40 percent uptick, according to one large Danish study. Christmas itself seems to have a protective effect with regard to certain types of psychopathology, say researchers, but there is a significant rebound effect immediately following the holiday.
Social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression—especially during the holidays. People who are lonely or have feelings of disconnectedness often avoid social interactions at holiday time. Unfortunately, Both in real life and on social media, it can be difficult to avoid comparing yourself with others around Christmastime. If you have a less-than-perfect family, a past trauma from this time of year, or just a less-than-full holiday dance card, comparing your holiday experience with other peoples’ is a recipe for increased sadness and isolation. One of the best things a person can do, however, is to reach out to others despite how difficult it may seem.
For many people, holidays are a painful reminder of what once was. This is especially true for people who have experienced a significant loss such as the death of a spouse or a break-up. For these individuals, it is important to manage expectations, experts say. Recent studies have shown that there are also environmental factors that can contribute to feelings of depression around the holidays. Some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can result from fewer hours of sunlight as the days grow shorter during the winter months. Researchers have found, however, that phototherapy, a treatment involving a few hours of exposure to intense light, is effective in relieving depressive symptoms in patients with SAD.
Don’t let the holidays become something you dread. Instead, take steps to prevent the stress and depression that can descend during the holidays. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays. Holiday depression and stress, fortunately, can be managed well by seeking out social support. Counseling and support groups can be of benefit if the symptoms are too much to bear alone.