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Dealing with stress, SAD & the ‘blues’ during the holidays

J.P. Augustine Noonan, M.D., FRCP [December 08 2011]

The shopping, the ribbons, the cookies -- and sometimes maybe even some headaches! The holidays are meant to be joyful but sometimes the holidays and celebration don't always equate to joy. Whether one is feeling stressed, has holiday blues or perhaps even seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression, there are positive steps one can take to help bring joy back into this season.
Naturally the arrival of the holiday season makes for a larger to-do list and can trigger stress for many people who may already have a packed schedule. The holidays are typically a change from your normal routine and it's that change that can trigger stress – which can be either good or bad. If it's distress, you may feel the telltale signs – anxiety, less energy, fatigue, headaches and that you're not enjoying activities like you usually do. To get a handle on stress, it's best to anticipate what needs to get done and don't be afraid to ask for help, whether to get things done or for support with a stressful family situation. Also be sure to get enough sleep to lessen your vulnerability to stress.
The decreased daylight we have this time of year may trigger SAD, a type of depression that's usually mixed with some anxiety. It typically starts in October and ebbs by the end of February or early March. While its symptoms are not the same as with major depression, they are associated. With SAD, one tends to sleep more (with major depression one usually sleeps less); eat more (with major depression one might eat less), and has less energy, tending to “hibernate.” Folks suffering from SAD, which seems to be biologically based, tend to respond well to light therapy. The optimal way to get this is from daylight. The more daylight you can get, the better (don't forget sunscreen) and this includes letting sun stream in through windows. If light therapy isn't working, it may be best to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.
For some people, the holidays may trigger what's commonly known as holiday blues. Causes of this condition might include fear of disappointment in not accomplishing everything that needs to get done or memories of loves one who have died. These blues, however, can also happen with other major holidays. While it's not a true depression, the blues can be a mixture of anxiety, stress and loneliness. Support and companionship can be very effective ways to help those with this condition. One should seek professional help when these symptoms begin to interfere with your daily functions and responsibility.
The key to dealing with stress, SAD or holiday blues is recognizing your situation and taking a positive action. If you're stressed, maybe it means foregoing making so many cookies; if it's SAD, maybe starting your day off with a walk; and if you know someone who might have the holiday blues, perhaps offering them a place at your table or a ride to church.
Some helpful tips we can all appreciate this holiday season are to try and maintain a healthy diet, limit alcohol, and get regular exercise. This will help us to start off the good year on a healthy note.

J.P. Augustine Noonan, M.D., FRCP, is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) medical staff. For referrals to HOCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 1-800-321-6244 or online. Learn more about psychiatry services at HOCC