By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
The songs say the holidays should be merry and bright.
But in the middle of all the frivolity, the blues can creep in.
Those less than festive feelings can be amplified by the sense that everyone else is glowing with holiday joy. But you shouldn’t assume all those people are immersed in nonstop Christmas cheer.
“It’s dangerous for people to compare themselves to everyone else,” said Jennifer Carroll, a licensed professional counselor in Saltillo. “People wear so many masks.”
The holiday season and its aftermath are ripe for emotional turbulence and depression.
“There’s so much build-up to the holidays,” said licensed professional counselor Joy Johnson, who serves as outreach manager at the North Mississippi Medical Center Behavioral Health Center in Tupelo. “Throwing all these expectations into the mix with life gets complicated and stressful.”
With the emphasis on family, the holidays also can accentuate grief over lost loved ones or lost relationships.
The season itself – specifically shorter days – can add another possible layer.
The key is not to ignore what you’re feeling.
“You have to be proactive with health, and mental health is no different,” Johnson said.
For a mild case of the blues, talking it out with trusted friends or family and giving yourself a little TLC may be enough to restore a holiday glow. But if the symptoms are severe enough that they are getting in the way of your daily life, it’s time to get some professional help.
“If it gets to the point symptoms are out of control, don’t be afraid to speak up,” Carroll said. “Never suffer in silence.”
Feeling down during the holidays doesn’t make you a Scrooge. It makes you pretty normal.
“We really set ourselves up with such high expectations,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed.”
Part of the issue may be resistance to change.
“We’re all getting older,” Johnson said. “Your holidays will change … it doesn’t have to be sad, just shift your thinking.”
The holiday multi-tasking layered on top of the every day multi-tasking can take a lot of the fun out of the holidays. People get too busy planning the next event in their heads to enjoy what they are doing now.
“You need to focus on living in the moment,” Johnson said.
And don’t be afraid to take a moment when you need one.
“You’ve got to take the time to take care of yourself,” Carroll said, “even if it’s just five minutes for quiet time.”
If you make it through the holidays with your sense of jolly intact, you may not be out of the woods. The people who thrive on the hustle and bustle of the holidays can sometimes end up in a tail spin when it’s time to go back to normal.
“You’re going to have to put up the decorations at some point,” Johnson said. “So plan ahead.”
Finding a new project, picking up a new hobby or taking a continuing education class can help fill the void for those who want more to do, Johnson said.
Post-holiday blues also can kick in for people who pushed grief, worries and hurt feelings to the other side of the holidays.
“You can’t push everything down forever,” Carroll said. “The cup is going to run over.”
And for many people who have been pushing aside their emotions since Thanksgiving, that emotional reckoning comes due in January.
“Give yourself permission to feel the emotions,” Carroll said.
Effective coping skills can help manage the emotions as you deal with them. Mental health professionals can help people unpack those emotions and develop the skills to deal with them.
“It’s not necessarily the same thing for everybody,” Carroll said.
For some people, it’s not the situation, but the season that brings on the blues in the winter.
Seasonal affective disorder can kick in as shorter days and less exposure to sunlight triggers chemical changes in the brain that can cause depression.
“People start feeling bad in fall and winter, and they don’t know why,” Carroll said.
Symptoms typically hit during the holiday period and then get better in the spring as the amount of daylight increases again.
“There’s all kinds of research suggesting half a million Americans have seasonal affective disorder,” Johnson said.
It often goes untreated, because many people don’t connect their feelings with the change in exposure to sunlight. But seasonal affective disorder does respond well to treatment.
For Johnson, who has the disorder, it manifested as feeling sluggish and mentally foggy between Thanksgiving and spring break. She gets relief by using light therapy, sitting beside a full spectrum light box for 15 minutes in the morning.
“Your eyes are reading it as sunlight,” Johnson said. “It really does help.”
Tanning beds won’t help because it is your eyes, not your skin that need to absorb the light.
Depending on the individual’s symptoms, psychotherapy, light therapy, support groups and antidepressants are all effective treatments, Carroll said.
The most important thing with any mental health issue is to recognize the symptoms and admit when it’s interfering with your everyday life.
“When it starts impeding your life, it’s time to get help,” Carroll said.