Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, December 14, 1998

By Craig Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Symptoms of holiday blues often mimic clinical depression.

Blues a sign
of the season

By Tim Ryan


In July, thoughts of Christmas holiday cheer and goodwill give you something to look forward to at the end of the year. By Thanksgiving -- or sooner -- you might have a sense of dread and apprehension. And by Christmas day, you could be in a full-fledge depression.

You're not alone with feelings like this, said Dr. Jean Adair-Leland, chief psychologist at Queen's Hospital. "It's called 'Holiday Blues.'"

Though the holidays cry out "joy to the world," they also can be a time of sadness and grief. And these periods of depression are experienced even by those who generally function well the rest of the year, she said.

"The holidays have a way of forcing people to examine their support system, like family and friends, and relive past tragedies," Adair-Leland said. "The season can magnify a sense of loneliness for (independent types) who generally get by during the year with few friends and family members.

"Many people may experience these emotions because of financial, family and time pressures that seem to magnify around holiday season," Adair-Leland said. "It can happen when people realize they can't do the things they want to do for their kids or families. Stressful events like a death or divorce that have happened in people's live are triggered by the holidays."

Symptoms of holiday blues often mimic clinical depression, Adair-Leland said. And while they may be intense and unsettling, the good news is they usually are short-lived, lasting for a few days to a few weeks prior to or just after the holiday, she said.

Adair-Leland suggests people set priorities, deciding for themselves what the holidays really mean to them.

"Is it a religious meaning, or focused on family events related to giving and sharing?" she said. "Many people just want a quiet, comfortable time with family and friends."

It's also helpful to set realistic goals, Adair-Leland said.

"Holiday depression is all about people's expectations falling short of what they think they should do," Adair-Leland said. "If a family reunion is part of your holiday plan, decide before hand what you're willing to do, discuss and not discuss, and schedules."

But be aware that the holidays often are the worst time for families.

"People save things up and because they don't see each other a lot they take this opportunity to speak," Adair-Leland said. "Often what's said is not real selective.

"In the middle of a conversation you remember why you were mad a year ago and you find yourself being really sarcastic. First take a minute to think whether this is the right time or place."

It's especially important to prepare yourself emotionally for the fun and challenges of the holiday season. And one key is not to isolate yourself.

"Try to keep your life as ordinary as possible; don't cancel things or over schedule. Be vigilant about the amount of food, alcohol or other drugs you take. Don't dull yourself to loneliness or sadness," she said.

Making plans does not include burying yourself in a bar and drinking eggnog and rum with whomever saddles up on the stool next to you. Remember: alcohol only gives the illusion that the depression is gone, Adair-Leland said.

Holiday blues can be used as a catalyst to ask yourself what do you really want this time of year, and "to examine your values," Adair-Leland said.

And if the onset of depression starts to worm its way into your psyche, don't wait until after the holidays to talk to someone about it.

"If you're depresed or feel lonely, give yourself permission to talk to someone like a friend, counselor or minister," Adair-Leland said. "The hardest step is making that first phone call, telling another human being 'Help me, I'm hurting, I'm in pain.' Not getting help when you need it just leads to more serious problems."

Numbers to call for help

Crisis Response Citizen Hot Line: 521-4555

Queen's Hospital/Counseling: 547-4401

Mental Health Association in Hawaii: 521-1846, offers referrals to mental health agencies, provides educational material

Dos and don'ts
for the holidays


bullet Follow the three basics for good health: Eat right; get plenty of rest; and exercise regularly.

bullet Set realistic goals: Organize your time; make lists; prioritize; and make a budget and follow it.

bullet Let go of the past and create new or different ways to celebrate.

bullet Allow yourself to feel sad, lonely or melancholy. These are normal feelings, particularly at holiday times.

bullet Do something for someone else.

bullet Spend time with people who care about you, or new people even a different set of friends or family.

bullet Contact someone with whom you have lost touch.


bullet Don't drink too much alcohol or overindulge in holiday foods, especially those that are high in sugar and fat.

bullet Don't have unrealistic expectations of yourself or others.

bullet Don't dwell on the past.

bullet Don't focus on what you don't have.

bullet Don't spend money you don't have.

Sources: American Heart Association, Queen's Hospital and the Mental Health Association of Hawaii

Symptoms of
the blues

bullet Headaches

bullet Inability to sleep or sleeping too much

bullet Changes in appetite causing weight loss or gain

bullet Agitation and anxiety

bullet Excessive or inappropriate feelings of guilt

bullet Diminished ability to concentrate

bullet Decreased interest in activities that usually bring pleasure: food, sex, friends, hobbies and entertainment.

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