Birmingham -- It's called the most wonderful time of the year, but the holiday season is sometimes anything but happy for those who suffer from the holiday blues. Mistletoe, stockings, and Christmas trees frequently just aren't enough to pull some people out of a December funk. UAB clinical psychologist Josh Klapow is quite familiar with the holiday blues.
"You know the holidays are supposed to be this wonderful time for everybody, and we're supposed to be joyous and happy. However, for many people, the holidays represent a time of stress, distress, and sadness."
Crisis centers reports an increase in calls from individuals suffering from depression between November and mid-January.
"The holiday blues can be everything from feelings of sadness and depression to feelings of anxiety, stress, irritability, those kinds of things...and basically the blues are an emotional reaction to a wide variety of things. You couple that with the fact that during the holidays we tend not to eat as well, we tend not to get as much sleep, we tend to overextend ourselves, and you put those two together, and you have a recipe for the holiday blues which a lot of people experience."
Klapow suggests that those feeling a touch of December gloom follow a few basic suggestions. First, have realistic expectations.
"As wonderful as the holidays are, they are not going to rid you of all your past problems, and they are not going to be a time of pure bliss and joy 24 hours a day for anything but the 2-4 week time period."
Klapow says give yourself permission to not feel festive all the time.
"There's gonna be good times and there's gonna be bad times during the holidays. The third thing is holiday excess...anything that really stretches yourself too thin is going to dampen your mood, so it's important that you kind of prioritize. Take some time for yourself."
And finally, he says, pay attention to your health. Get plenty of sleep and exercise and don't overindulge in food or alcohol.
Food, drink and merry making aren't the only triggers for holiday blues. Sometimes it's even deeper, says Joe Warren, director of pastoral care and counseling at The Cathedral Church of the Advent. Warren says he's dealt with many individuals who seem unable to find the spiritual renewal and hope offered by the Christmas season.
"It's extraordinarily amazing to me how many people are walking around with depression and anger from way back, from early childhood, and then for various reasons, it's heightened during the holiday season. Happy memories might make somebody sad because someone's missing and they remember the good times and then also remember they'll never see them again."
While the holiday blues are short-lived for most people, some cases are more severe.
"There are a relatively small number of people who are not gonna be able to shake the blues. They are gonna go on to develop a more serious condition, usually clinical depression, we also talk about it as seasonal affective disorder.
Brought on by the absence of direct sunlight and extended hours of darkness, seasonal affective disorder - also known as SAD - can plunge its victims into a true clinical depression. Klapow says it's important to distinguish between the holiday blues and something much more serious.
"The basic way you distinguish between that is, if you or somebody you know can't seem to shake the blues after a couple, few weeks, then you want to start looking for other signs and symptoms of depression, so things like a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, thoughts of death, or suicide. If those kinds of things are there and it's been two three weeks, then you're not likely just talking about the holiday blues and it is very important that you contact a physician or mental health professional because clinical depression is extremely serious, but it is also extremely manageable."
-- Frank Thompson, December 26, 2005
Editor's note: This is the latest story in a year-long commitment to covering mental health issues in Alabama. You can learn more about our "Making Sense of Mental Health" project and find local mental health resources -- as our commitment continues throughout the year -- inside this website.