If you listen to the media, the holidays are a set-up for stress, depression and even suicide. But is it true? Could the “most wonderful time of the year” be damaging to your mental health? For some, the holidays are undoubtedly a difficult time. Expectations run high and often go unfulfilled; tough economic times put a damper on the good cheer; and family rifts and personal losses complicate even the happiest celebrations. But for the average person, the media hype is largely over-exaggerated. Studies have produced little evidence that depression rates skyrocket around the holidays (except for those with seasonal affective disorder, which increases during the winter months). What’s more, suicide rates actually go down in December and are highest in spring, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Dark Side of Holiday Cheer
Unfortunately, the news isn’t all good. Some of the year’s most highly anticipated events, such as Black Friday shopping, could be deleterious to your mental health. A recent study found that the chaos of major sales events may cause anxiety, loss of reality and other mental health issues among shoppers. Retailers bank on these heightened emotions to make the sale. Unsurprisingly, many shoppers feel “spending guilt” after loading up on holiday gifts they can’t afford, which in turn can lead to financial and relationship problems. All the junk food and sugar-laden treats we’ve come to associate with the holiday season have also been linked to high rates of depression. Research shows that a diet high in added sugar reduces the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical that promotes memory and protects against type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, dementia and depression.
Preserving Your Mental Health
Mental health is as important as physical health, not only around the holidays but year-round. To safeguard your sanity:
- Get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
- Exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week.
- Eat a balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.
- Cut down on alcohol, caffeine and other drugs. Men shouldn’t drink more than two alcoholic beverages per night and women should stop at one.
- Spend time doing things that relax you – talking with friends, taking a bath or reading a book, for example.
- Agree to make homemade gifts or to volunteer your time in place of gift-giving this year.
- Talk to a mental health professional if you’re struggling to function day-to-day and your symptoms don’t improve over time.
For most people, the holidays are indeed a joyous time. Even if they overdo it on the cookies or forget to take care of themselves for a few weeks, little lasting damage is done to their mental health. But for others, the holidays can be an isolating and lonely time that sparks (or renews) a long-term mental health issue. In these cases, early identification and treatment are the greatest gift the season can bring.