Singin' the holiday blues - when is it serious?
Singin' the holiday blues - when is it serious?

By Jay DeFoore

All of us have felt it at one time or another... That bah-humbug feeling you get between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A time when you feel like stringing up your siblings with Christmas tree lights... Or stuffing them into their holiday stocking.

But what if that feeling sticks around, leaving us feeling the holiday blues all the way through the holidays? Those feelings, whether they be loneliness, self-doubt or disappointment, shouldn't be swept under the rug or taken lightly. The first thing you need to do is find out what's making you feel so bad.

Jeffrey Chase, an assistant psychology professor at Radford University in Virginia, says societal expectations play a big part. Pressures to make everything "perfect" leads to stress which leads to fatigue which leads to mom snapping at you for not hanging the mistletoe right. Factor in the recent death of a loved one and enough alcohol to sedate Barney from "The Simpsons" and you've got a holiday powder keg waiting to explode.

"Most substances, including alcohol and illegal drugs, are going to help you not think about those issues in the short term but are more destructive in the long term," Chase says. "When you wake up the next morning, the problems are still there and you haven't done anything directly to change them."

Chase recommends addressing problems directly. If traditions cannot be carried on because of the death of a loved one, begin new traditions. Dwelling on the past will only make it worse, he says.

Contrary to popular belief, studies have failed to show that suicides increase over the holidays. As the name implies, the holiday blues tends to be a temporary problem as opposed to severe clinical depression, which can be life threatening.

""Most substances, including alcohol and illegal drugs, are going to help you not think about those issues in the short term but are more destructive in the long term."

asst. psychology professor at Radford University

Still, most school health centers see an increase in the number of patients around the holidays. The high-pressure crunch of finals coupled with sleepless nights can lead to severe headaches and fatigue.

Jane Bogart, director of New York University's Center for Health Promotion, sees an increase in urgent care related to stress and fatigue around the holidays. NYU offers a number of interactive programs to deal with holiday issues, including deciding on who to buy presents for, discussions of holiday traditions and support groups for those who can't be with family members.

Being away from home can be tough, especially for students at NYU, a school that has more international students than any other school in the country. Many of them who can't afford to go home, have to face the holidays alone. "It can be very lonely because it's such a big city," Bogart says. "Everybody seems to have a place to go and people to visit and if you don't, you can feel pretty bad."

But you don't have to live in a big city to feel lonely. Xiaosong Deng, a Chinese graduate student at the University of Iowa, says his first Christmas couldn't have been worse. Although he never got depressed, the loneliness was certainly no picnic. Compounding the problem was that Iowa City, where the university employs the majority of the population, became a ghost town during Christmas break.

"Everyone is busy with their own life," Deng said. "After everyone goes home you realize how small the town is."

Deng survived by making lots of phone calls to family and friends back in China. This year a friend has invited him to Thanksgiving dinner and he plans on traveling to New Orleans over Christmas.

So how can you tell the difference between feeling blue, like Deng, and being depressed? Psychologists say depression usually marks an obvious change in normal behavior. The Mental Health Association of Colorado recommends seeing a doctor if you experience five or more of the following for longer than two weeks:

1. Sad, anxious or "empty" mood

2. Sleeping too little or too much

3. Changes in weight or appetite

4. Loss of pleasure or interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex

5. Feeling restless or irritable

6. Trouble concentrating, remembering or making decisions

7. Fatigue or loss of energy

8. Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless

9. Physical symptoms that don't respond to treatment

10. Thoughts of death or suicide

If you do have to spend the holidays alone, make sure you have something planned. Whether it's a walk in the woods, or starting that hobby you've always wanted to. Staying busy physically will help keep your mind occupied, too.