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You can brighten up the holiday blues

POSTED: December 23, 2008 5:00 a.m.

This is the season when we’re supposed to feel joyous and jolly. And if we don’t, we think there’s something wrong with us.

"People have idealistic expectations," said Dr. Jeff Black, a psychiatrist at Laurelwood, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s mental health unit. "They go to a family gathering, and if it doesn’t pan out the way it’s supposed to, they feel stressed."

According to a Mayo Clinic survey, tense relationships are one of the three main reasons for holiday anxiety and depression. When adult family members get together, old conflicts that have simmered for decades may re-emerge.

Fatigue is also a major factor. Into their already busy lives, people try to cram in shopping, cooking, decorating and attending parties. The only way to get everything done is to cut back on sleep time, leading to exhaustion.

And then there’s financial stress. In the quest for a perfect Christmas, people may spend far more than they can afford, and worry later about how they’ll be able to pay the bills.

This year, Christmas comes at a time when many people already are in financial distress.

After being fired from a job or losing a home to foreclosure, they wonder if they’ll have a Christmas at all, much less the fairy-tale holiday depicted in Hallmark Channel movies.

Doyle Hamilton, a pastoral counselor with the Care and Counseling Center in Hall and Gwinnett counties, has been running a support group for unemployed or underemployed workers. He said some members have expressed concern about not being able to give their families a proper Christmas.

"There’s a lot of pressure," Hamilton said.

And sometimes people have to accept the reality that they’re not going to have the Christmas they’re accustomed to.

"If you’re unemployed, I would say you need to focus on survival," said Hamilton. "Take care of your immediate needs (before worrying about the holiday)."

The anxiety over Christmas is compounded by the pressure to find another job.

"It’s easy to feel victimized and powerless," he said. "The tendency is to quit trying, to withdraw and become isolated."

Hamilton said if a person loses all energy and motivation and can barely get out of bed, they may have major depression and need to seek medical help.

On the other hand, a person who is mentally healthy should be able to confront challenges and overcome them.

"One guy in the support group said he was using his unemployment as an opportunity to help others (by volunteering)," said Hamilton.

But Black said it’s clear that the nation’s economic crisis is having an effect on mental health. Of the patients recently admitted to Laurelwood, he said at least half are citing their financial situation as a main reason for their depression and anxiety.

But an economic recession does not cause mental illness, nor do the holidays. Statistics show there is no increase in suicides at Christmastime or during an economic downturn.

However, the worsening economy does create one more reason to feel down in the dumps. And some people already feel rotten at this time of year.

"The holidays can be difficult for people who’ve lost a loved one during the past year," said Black. "Some people also have difficulty at this time of year anyway because of seasonal affective disorder (winter depression)."

Those without close family are especially vulnerable to the blues.

"Some people become more melancholy when they feel lonely," Black said. "(Christmas) reminds them of the family they don’t have."

And if you combine depression with the holiday tradition of partying, it can be a treacherous time for addicts.

"Twelve-step programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) recognize this is a high-risk time for people who use (drugs or alcohol)," Black said.

If you’ve lost your job, you’re estranged from your family and you don’t have many friends, it seems only natural to feel depressed. But Black said people need to recognize when they may be suffering from major depression, a life-threatening illness.

"If it starts affecting their ability to function, and it’s happening consistently for two weeks, it’s more than just someone having a bad day," he said. "And if they’re having thoughts of hurting themselves, they need to be seen (by a doctor) right away."

People with mild depression often can talk themselves out of it through therapy that emphasizes positive thinking.

"You can make a difference in how you perceive yourself and the world," said Black. "We help people visualize what options they have, what they want their life to be."

Sometimes, repairing broken relationships with friends and relatives can help a person feel better. "This is a great time of the year for people to suck up their pride and make amends," Black said.

Hamilton said people who know they have a tendency to get depressed at Christmas should take preventive action.

"Find a place where you can talk about those feelings," he said. "Push against the urge to hibernate and isolate yourself. You need to learn to create a network of support."


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