Stay active to beat the post-holiday blues; depression is common this time of year, but staying busy can keep you mentally and physically healthy
While the holiday season is associated with good cheer and excitement about the promise of a new year, an estimated one million Americans will find themselves experiencing post-holiday depression when the gift-giving and parties come to an end.
“Holidays are supposed to be a season of joy and happiness, but many people don’t feel it,” says Helen Lavretsky, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at UCLA’s Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital. “Reasons for depression include grief, divorce, major changes, lack of sunlight or physical exercise, relationship problems, spiritual or anger issues, financial stress, sleep deprivation, and more.”
Signs of depression. Because families are such a focus at this time of year, it’s not unusual for the memories of those who have died or even just moved away to be even stronger and harder to release.
If you think you or a loved one may be vulnerable to depression, look for signs such as diminished interest in or enjoyment of activities; changes in appetite and sleep patterns; lack of energy; low self-esteem; feelings of hopelessness, unresolved grief or inappropriate guilt; social withdrawal; or even suicidal thoughts.
“If you have three or more of those symptoms, which have lasted for over two weeks, you should seek medical help or professional counseling,” Dr. Lavretsky says.
Depression can also manifest in physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, muscle pain, and nausea. Unexplained pain symptoms are more common among people with psychiatric disorders, research shows. Depression-related changes in sleeping and eating patterns can also contribute to declining health, Dr. Lavretsky says.
Preventive measures. Before depressive symptoms appear, you can take steps to shield yourself from troubling mood changes. Taking care of your physical health, for example, can improve your mental outlook, Dr. Lavretsky says.
She recommends a mix of exercise–four or five days a week of cardiovascular training, such as jogging or bicycling, as well as three or four days of weight training, along with yoga or Tai Chi. If you haven’t had much regular exercise, you should talk to a doctor about any possible limitations.
Yoga or dance classes, or a membership at the local health club, can not only help you work off some calories acquired during the holidays, but also can give you something new to look forward to each day–an especially helpful tool for shaking the blues, Dr. Lavretsky suggests. Similar benefits can be found by starting a new hobby and doing volunteer work.
Treatment options. Talk therapy has been shown to be effective in treating depression. A counselor might opt for one of three types of talk therapy, including cognitive therapy, which seeks to change your thinking about troubling issues; behavioral therapy, which helps you gain control over your actions; and interpersonal therapy, which helps you relate better with others.
Even patients with mild to moderate depression can benefit from antidepressant medication, as well. Three types of medications shown to be effective are tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). As with any medication, antidepressants can have side effects and some drugs are more effective than others at also relieving physical symptoms.
Dr. Lavretsky also recommends spending time with relatives and friends who enrich your life, and limiting or avoiding altogether the people and situations that negatively impact you and your feelings.
“Usually people who are feeling depressed are not doing what would help themselves feel better,” Dr. Lavretsky says. “Figure out what’s draining you and eliminate it.”
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