HOLIDAY SYNDROME: Be aware of signs of depression during the holidays

Group of three women - white, black and Asian - with Christmas presents in a shopping mall in front of a Christmas tree
Group of three women – white, black and Asian – with Christmas presents in a shopping mall in front of a Christmas tree

Remember the images of Christmas on “Leave it to Beaver” and the beautiful scenes from the Hallmark holiday programs on television?  Watching Christmas holiday TV can make us wish for a “Hallmark Christmas” with the beautiful home decorations, the dining room table set for a formal Christmas dinner, the family sitting together for church service and singing “O Come all Ye Faithful”. Those images might bring joy, but the reality of what the holiday season really brings may not be so joyful.

A family that has experienced an illness or an individual or couple now in advanced age might look toward the holiday season and experience sadness or depression rather than joy.  The term “holiday syndrome” represents the link between the memories and/or expectations of the holiday and signs and symptoms of depression.  This depressive reaction might begin before Thanksgiving and continue through the New Year and beyond during the winter months.

Expectations of a magical holiday season can create physical and mental stress.  High expectations of a happy family gathering can end in disappointment. Not everyone enjoys memories of pleasant family holiday experiences – bitter memories about the past can bring anger, resentment, use of alcohol and/or drugs and depression. Not all family systems represent close, supportive and loving parents and siblings.  The “Ozzie and Harriett” family we watched on television represented the ideal family that few actually experience. It is an image that leads many to regret and despair at the reality of their own family relationships.

Many psychological and social stressors pop up during the holiday season.  In addition to the stressful family relationships, an increased financial demand can cause anxiety and stress. Anticipating the holiday season after the loss of a loved one can be the unrecognized source of anxiety or depression. It is normal to return to happy memories of holidays past and grieve for the loss of companionship and love at the holiday season.   Memories of children in their youth, family members now deceased, loss of friends and companion animals, all can create a need to grieve the years gone by.  If the source of resulting feelings of sadness are not identified, behaviors such as expressed anger, frustrations, resentments and withdrawal can result, making the holidays an even more difficult and unpleasant experience for everyone.

What can your family do to recognize signs of “Holiday Syndrome”?

If you or a friend or a relative have experienced change in the last years, think of how those changes might influence your family or friend’s thoughts during the holiday season.  Loss is always with us.  A person who is unable to physically travel or attend events to celebrate the holiday season can feel left out and alone.  Anyone who has experienced the death of a spouse or a child will be remembering holidays past and feeling the loss throughout the season. The holidays are a time of reflection to the past.  Be aware of losses and changes.

Holiday gatherings can also be a time to remember and celebrate the life of the deceased. Set aside a time at dinner or during the gift exchange to reminisce about the times when you were all together.  Share memories, allow a moment of reflection and bring the life celebration to a positive closure by inviting  good memories of those now missing from the family holiday gathering.   Have photo albums to review of past holidays and share positive family experiences in the past.

During the holiday season, think of family and friends who may be alone, who are unable to go to church services, family celebrations, or get out to see friends.  Remember those who are now in care facilities and plan a special visit during the holiday season. Seeing the face of a friend and receiving a hug means much more than a call or a card when the recipient is living alone or receiving care in a nursing home. Christmas time is much more than gift giving, it means sharing the meaning of Christmas with those who need comfort and joy in their heart.

Sara Cain-Bartlett, MSW, LCSW, C-ASWCM                  CareSupport Services, PLLC 
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