Blue Christmas: The holiday season is anything but merry for many

December 9, 2011
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By Lisa Girard

The holiday season can be a happy time filled with family togetherness, parties, gift giving, special traditions and more. But for many, the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day is anything but cheerful. Instead of feeling the joy and anticipation associated with the holidays, they experience sadness, depression and – in the worst cases – even thoughts of suicide.
These symptoms of depression associated with the winter holiday season often fall under a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder – aptly known as SAD. According to Lou Storey, a clinical social worker and therapist who runs the Meaningful Therapy Center in Red Bank, there are many factors that can come together to trigger SAD at this time of year.
“Some people feel stressed out about the financial demands associated with the holidays, and for others, if there’s been a death or other loss in their lives, the holidays become a marking point,” Storey says. “It’s also the darkest period of the year – literally – which can affect people physically as well as psychologically.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 17 million adult Americans suffer from depression during any one-year period. The symptoms related to depression are lack of energy, increased need for sleep, increased cravings for carbohydrates or a decrease in appetite, persistent aches and pains, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness, and feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism.
Of course, those with full-blown depression should consult a therapist. “There are all different kinds of groups for depression,” says Storey, who also works at Monmouth Medical Center in outpatient services, teaching coping skills in support groups. “Many people who attend these groups realize they’re extra vulnerable during the cold months. I think it’s healthy for people to recognize that it’s normal to get glum around the holidays, and there are things you can do to be aware of it – and things to do to avoid it.”
Storey recommends a series of steps people can take to relieve holiday depression or avoid it altogether. First, he encourages them to become more exposed to light. This includes taking walks during the day, as well as bringing full spectrum lighting — which can be purchased at lighting specialty stores as well as at big box stores like Walmart and Target — into their homes. Second, he encourages daily exercise, which can be anything from walking to running to working out a gym. “Staying physically active has been shown to help,” Storey adds.
One activity that has been known to help is yoga, which comprises meditation, breathing and hundreds of different poses called asanas – all of which can ward off depression, according to Stacy Ross, who owns Fair Haven Yoga. Ross, who offers a class called “Yoga and Mental Well-Being,” says practicing yoga can also help simply by causing someone to slow down and be calm during this pressure-filled time of year.
“Meditation allows you to let everything else go and have time to be by yourself – even if you’re in a crowded place,” Ross says. “Breathing deeply brings oxygen into your body and clears your mind, which helps you sleep better. And if you sleep well, you’ll feel better all day long.
“It’s really making a commitment to yourself,” she continues. “Yoga teaches you to listen to the needs of your body, mind and spirit, which leads to you taking better care of yourself and, in turn, those around you. On the reverse side, ignoring those needs can send you in a downward spiral.”
In addition to increased exposure to light and physical activity, people suffering from seasonal depression should also be careful about what they eat. It’s so easy to over-indulge in sweets and treats, which are being offered to people at every turn at this time of year. There are cookies, cakes, brownies, cupcakes and more everywhere we go, and these high-calories, sugar-rich foods can make us put on weight, leading to more depression.
“Be conscious of your intake of sweets and carbs during Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s,” Storey says. “The key is to do it in moderation.”
For those in our area, it might be a good idea to check out Dean’s Natural Food Market in Shrewsbury and Ocean Township, which features a wide selection of high-quality organic and natural foods and other products. According to Maryjane Mercovich, a nutritionist at Dean’s, the right mix of foods, supplements and activities can make a big difference when it comes to treating short-term, milder forms of depression.
Here’s are Mercovich’s recommendations in these areas:
Foods – What you eat or don’t eat can be helpful in elevating mood, she says. Studies have shown fatty acids in fish, particularly Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), can relieve depression, and people who have diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids from fish have a lower incidence of depression and suicide. In addition, restricting sugar and caffeine in your diet can help can also help elevate mood in some people.
Get Active – Exercise that increases your heart rate at least three hours per week (or about 30 minutes per day) can boost your endorphins, your body’s natural mood enhancers.
Supplements –Certain herbs, notably St. John’s wort and passionflower, can relieve depression and promote a healthy mood. Herbs can interact with certain medications, however, so Mercovich says to make sure you clear this with your doctor if you’re taking prescription medications. In addition, supplementing l-tryptophan has been shown to have anti-depressive properties. Although it is unclear if increasing dietary l-tryptophan has the same benefit, the best food sources of this amino acid are egg whites, spirulina, salmon, cod, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, turkey and chicken, she says. “Increasing your intake of these foods just may help.”

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