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Prevent and treat the post-holiday blues

January 10, 2017
by H. Steven Moffic
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As usual, in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the media published and posted many articles about the so-called holiday blues during that time. Unfortunately, that concern seems to be largely a myth.

It is a bit unclear how and when this myth arose, but it may relate to the 1946 movie, “It's A Wonderful Life,” which depicts an imminent Christmas Eve suicide which is thwarted when the person is shown how his life has helped so many others. The fact seems to be that most people in the United States actually feel better in December with the hope of a joyous Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and inspiring Kwanzaa. Couples in conflict are often hoping for a holiday spark. Suicides are down from Christmas to New Year’s Day.

Then the letdown

But the letdown seems to occur right afterward. If loneliness was present beforehand, it usually intensifies. This early part of the year is when the suicide rate spikes, and when depression commonly increases. Indeed, divorce lawyers have deemed the Monday after Christmas as “Divorce Day,” when the flood of divorce request e-mails begins and remains for the whole month.

Then, in climates where the sun is often clouded over for months, along with cold temperatures, seasonal affective disorder becomes more common. We still seem to depend on the sun to continue to regulate our biological clocks. The symptoms of this kind of depression differ from the usual, with increased appetite, weight gain and longer sleep.

Even the beginning of January has another risk factor for the half of us that make New Year’s resolutions that soon begin to fail. Now this year, we might even add the national anxiety—even grief—for some as a new presidential administration soon begins in Washington.

On the purely medical side, there is an increased risk of heart attacks around the whole world. This is a "chronorisk", where several risk factors occur at once, in this case including increased air pollution, flu and the mornings after a poor night’s sleep.

Now the good news

The good news is that most of these varieties of post-holiday depression can be prevented and/or treated, and we in mental healthcare can lead the way. Here is some of what we may do and recommend in our settings and for public education.

  • Don’t be fooled by someone with clinical depression seeming to be happier around the end of year holidays, as their risk may drastically increase afterwards;
  • New year’s resolutions, if made at all, should be practical and doable from the get-go;
  • Couples deciding on divorce should try to wait out the month and consult with marital therapists;
  • Seasonal affective disorder is helped not so much by psychotherapy or even medication, but more by Light box therapy and the new dawn simulators;
  • Get your flu shots and try to stay out of congested traffic;
  • Like the citizens of Denmark, who live in a dreary winter climate but remain happy, practice some Hygge, which is spending considerable time with friends, eating candies in candlelight.

Finally, which applies to both patients and/or ourselves, use the model “treatment” of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Take this time to review how helpful you have been to others and what gives your life meaning. We can all contribute to a healthier and happier new year.

 

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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