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updated 12/20/2010 3:17:52 PM ET 2010-12-20T20:17:52

The holiday season is supposed to be a time filled with laughter and cheer — or so goes the unavoidable message — but for many people that isn't the case.

MyHealthNewsDaily talked with psychiatrist Dr. Ron Podell, medical director of the Center for Bio-Behavioral Science in Los Angeles, and author of "Contagious Emotions: Staying Well When Your Loved One Is Depressed," to see what brings on the holiday blues, find out why they can be so debilitating and learn how we might deal with them.

Q: What exactly are "the holiday blues?"

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A: First, it's not a form of [clinical] depression. It seems to be very special to this time of year, and a lot of it is there are cultural messages, which come to you from the TV, from commercials, from the radio, from the mythology of Thanksgiving and the Christmas season. It's time to be merry, giving and joyful, and in a way, we've been programmed to expect that we should feel a certain way and act a certain way.

You have a cultural image that all of us understand, and you experience a significant discrepancy between yourself and that image. You can experience the blues in two very different ways that both lead to feeling bad about yourself and very frustrated about your life and not very proud about it. All that leads to a kind of depression.

The holiday blues are real — an existential problem. Hell is other people, and hell is also being alone.

Q: So what are the two ways of having the holiday blues?

A: The first group, I feel, who have the holiday blues, are the people who are alone. Their families may be far away, they may be in a new community where they don't have close ties to anyone yet. They may have a family that exists, but they would really rather not be there because that is generally a horrible experience to them, and there've been traumatic experiences in the past and they decided it's better not to venture forward to any reunions. So they're alone, and "alone" is not the image you get about Christmas.

And then there's an entirely different group — when this time of year makes you feel obligated. You're supposed to have an open heart, you're not supposed to say, "I can't stand these people, I'm not going to go there," to your mother who you fight with, or your dad who gets drunk. But if you don't go, there's this guilt, like, "Maybe I'm being too harsh." This is a time of reunion, this is a time of love and caring and making sacrifice. And so you feel guilt. These people do go, and they're not happy. They're not anticipating feeling like this, and they become anxious and agitated.

Q: What is it about this time of year that makes us blue?

A: The paradox of the holiday blues is you get it when you're alone, when you're missing the cultural stereotype and you're not biding by the cultural messages of merriment and joy and good Christian values of giving. And you're having a horrible time, and you're alone and sad, and you feel sick, because there must be something wrong with me if I'm sitting here alone at Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Q: How common are these blues?

A: To some extent, [it's in] all our families… There's sadness, and there's a lot of anxiety anticipating it, anger. There's depression in the sense of feeling sad and down and paralyzed for the whole day after this event or dinner, and a feeling of "I just want to get out of here."

Q: How do you know you have them?

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A: For the first type, there's loneliness. Both types produce anticipatory anxiety — you don't know until the minute before [if you'll feel affected by the blues].

If you're going home to people and circumstances where you have known negative feelings and known traumas, the first thing you'll notice is anxiety. Then, you might have headaches, physical symptoms. You think, "I'm getting sick — my bones are aching." People get chronic fatigue suddenly.

You should feel bad because you're anticipating something negative. You're agitated, you're short-tempered, irritable — these are signs that you're not doing well.

Q: What can you do to feel better?

A: Seeing a therapist may not be a bad thing. The key thing is to gain some understanding — "What really upsets me?" Really think it through, because if you don't, you can't understand your own feelings. I always talk about developing a calm soothing voice — you have to do some self-parenting.

You can exercise, you can do meditation, you can do breathing exercises through yoga because you understand your arousal is too high. If anti-anxiety medications work for you, then those can be a good thing.

Q: Is there anything you should avoid doing if you feel this way?

A: Try to keep yourself from dwelling on negative thoughts — you're setting relaxing scenes for yourself, and you're counting your blessings, too.

And you have to know your triggers. If you have alcohol problems, then you tend to use alcohol as medicine — that's not a good thing. Alcohol is a depressant – though it may work at first to lower your anxiety, there's a difference between using it as medicine and just having a glass of wine to relax.

Pass it on: The holiday blues are real, and the best way to deal with them is to recognize what can trigger them and avoid dwelling on negative thoughts.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @ AmandaLChan.

Video: Don’t have a blue Christmas

  1. Closed captioning of: Don’t have a blue Christmas

    >> this morning on "today's" health, how to cope with seasonal affective disorder . it's not simply a case of the winter blues. psychiatrist gail salts is a "today" contributor. good morning. as we said, this is not just the winter blues?

    >> no.

    >> why is it more serious and what are some of the symptoms?

    >> basically if for more than two years in a row you find at the same time of year, and i say that because it could be spring or summer, but most commonly it's now, late fall, early winter , you find yourself slowing down, feeling sad, depressed, but unlike typical depression, you're sleeping more than usual, you're eating more than usual, particularly carbohydrate craving. you lose concentration, you lose libido, desire for sex. you start to socially isolate yourself and feel really hopeless. people can become incredibly depressed with seasonal affective disorder , they even can commit suicide. so feelings of life isn't worth living, that can happen as well.

    >> and who is more at risk of getting s.a.d., or seasonal affective disorder .

    >> women are much more likely to get it than men and also it runs in family. if all your family members have maybe suffered from this, and maybe didn't even realize it. and people who live farther from the equator are at more risk because this has to do with the lack of light, the shorter days, the changing of your circadian rhythm and precipitating this kind of depression.

    >> if you're sad, what can you do?

    >> take it seriously. things that you can do on your own, inject exercise, daily exercise into your life, it's shown in studies that exercise can even go head to head with medication in terms of improving depression. make sure you stay involved with people. the social isolation can make this really spiral out of control. add light to your day, naturally by sitting by the window early in the day, as much as possible. think about being somewhere where there's more light. changing your home so that shades are up and light is around. that actually can be helpful on your own. but you may actually think about seeing a professional. because the truth is that s.a.d. may need professional treatment.

    >> it's a clinical form of depression.

    >> it is a clinical depression , it will keep reoccurring and will go away at the end, but now you've got a third of your year that you're depressed. so if you go see a professional. things they may offer you are medication like an anti-dress sant. you should think about light treatment. it can be as effective as an anti-depressant. this is a real treatment that needs to be prescribed. what kind of light, how long you should use this light and under the care of a doctor because --

    >> and you've got an example.

    >> this is a light box . this is a light box that will look like white light . this is the kind of thing you would sit in front of. you would probably do it for about 30 minutes when you're really depressed and 15 minutes a day to maintain your mood during the holiday season . it's going to affect the base of the retina and that's going to make it more effective because it simulates real sunlight. the blue wave length is the one that actually treats you, it's a certain wave length of light that you get from the sun that's actually going to make you better. because some people with depression actually have masked bipolar disorder . and the light just like an anti-depressant will make you manic and you can become extremely sick. so

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