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Coping with Holiday Depression

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Coping with Holiday Depression

Dec 16, 2014

Family dinners, holiday parties, jingle bells and presents! It’s that joyous time of the year again – but you’re feeling depressed and moody. Are you really depressed or just stressed? Psychiatrist Dr. Jason Hunziker talks about the signs and symptoms of holiday depression, why it’s common this time of year and tips for recapturing some holiday cheer.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Family dinners, holiday parties, jingle bells and presents. It's that joyful time of the year again. But you go feeling depressed and moody. Coming up on The Scope, how to deal with holiday depression.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University Utah physicians and specialists you can use for happier, healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: We're talking with psychiatrist Dr. Jason Hunziker from the University of Utah. Jason, the holidays are here and you're supposed to be happy. But why are some people depressed?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: Have you ever been to one of those holiday parties before? They can be very stressful, and often we think about families, and we think about our childhood, growing up, and all of those things that are very nostalgic to us. However, as life goes on families change and traditions are thrown away. And some people have a hard time changing those traditions and moving forward.

Additionally, you see family members that maybe you don't see all the time; you have work parties, and you have to buy Christmas gifts. You have to plan meals and entertain and clean house and everything has to be just right. And it gets very overwhelming, particularly if you don't stop and take time for yourself.

Interviewer: And this might seem like a silly question, but how can you tell if it's getting stressful?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: I think when you can tell that things are getting too overwhelming is when your sleep starts to get disrupted; you are shorter with people in your family or others at work. You start to dread Christmas altogether. You're finding yourself sitting in your room crying occasionally. You are more emotional when you're interacting with others. I think that the time that you need to really pay attention so that that doesn't turn into something else.

Interviewer: When is it to the point where you say, okay, this is getting serious? I have to go see a doctor.

Dr. Jason Hunziker: I think the best predictor of how we're going to do over the holiday season is how we've done during all the holiday seasons. And I think if you know that holidays are very stressful for you, get in early and go see the doctor early so that you can start to feel better and enjoy your holidays rather than feel miserable and can't wait until they're done.

Interviewer: So we'll say it's Christmas; I'm depressed and I don't want to see anyone, which means I obviously don't want to see you. I don't want to go see a doctor. Am I going to get worse?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: It's really important to recognize when you are feeling that way and not pretend that these emotions don't exist and that you are supposed to be happy so you're going to be happy. You need to acknowledge those emotions and those feelings and then get in and do something before it gets to the point where you don't want to do anything. If it gets to the point where you're isolating, that you're contemplating hurting yourself, that you're drinking alone in your bedroom so that you can avoid contact with anybody, those are things you really need to look at and get in and get some help.

Interviewer: Usually I feel like when you're depressed, you don't want to admit that you're depressed. What are some signs and symptoms that close friends and family members can look out for in case someone around them is getting depressed?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: I think one of the big things that families notice is that change in your personality where if you're the type of person who is readily engaged with people, you're always wanting to be at parties, but you start to isolate and you start to avoid conversations; you're not answering your phone; I think people will recognize that, and that's a danger sign. If you're sleep pattern is disrupted, your significant other often will recognize that and be able to say, hey, you were up all night, what's going on. I think that's important to pay attention to.

A lot of people during this time of year will eat more than they normally do when they start to feel depressed. And then they feel guilty about eating so much and that becomes a problem. Alcohol is a huge problem during this time of year because there is alcohol at all of these parties and people who tend to drink more during the holiday season could be somebody who is feeling depressed or sad and that could be the time to get in and talk with somebody.

Interviewer: Okay, so how do I avoid all of this? I'm aware of my problems, but I'm not at the point where I need to go see a doctor. How do I get better and avoid getting worse?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: I think reaching out to other people is really important. I think often times people feel left out during the holiday season, but there is so much going on in the community that you can go volunteer somewhere at a soup kitchen and just giving back to somebody and helping and getting that human contact is very important to help you feel good during the season. I think you need to be realistic about what you expect from the holiday season. You can't expect everything to be the same as it always was, and you can't expect all those traditions to be the same. Traditions change; families change; change your traditions with your family. If your kids are grown and they're out of the house and they're scattered all over the place, have a cell phone conference with them. Enjoy the holiday that way so that you can have a new tradition rather than longing for the old tradition and doing nothing at the same time.

Interviewer: What are some other common issues that could lead to holiday depression?

Dr. Jason Hunziker: Another problem that happens during the holiday season is we don't stick to a holiday budget. We tend to spend a lot of money that we don't have, charge up a lot of credit cards; and then right after Christmas we have this huge remorse. And right in January when we get our first bill from Christmas it gets even worse. So stick to a plan. I think planning ahead is always a good idea as well.

If you're going to entertain or you're going to have a party, plan way ahead so that you're not rushing around at the last minute because you forgot a certain spice that needs to be in your pie. If you have it all lined up and it's all laid out, then the stress level will go down.

And don't abandon your healthy habits. We tend to do that all the time. We stop exercising, and we start drinking more; we eat all the junk food. All of that stuff is going to make you stressed. You're going to be unhappy. You're going to be depressed, because you just ate a whole pie last night.

So be careful to keep exercising; that's another way to keep yourself happy as well. That will help you feel better.

And I think the last thing to do is to make sure you have time for yourself. It goes back to the exercising, but maybe even take in a moment, ten minutes, to meditate and think about why the season is important to you and what is most important about the season so that you don't feel stressed and overwhelmed. And you can remember why it is that you're putting yourself through all of this in the first place, and the importance of that to you and your family.

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