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Fighting Holiday Depression

For some people, the saying Blue Christmas rings true. Winter time, and in particular the holidays, can bring on bouts of depression in normally happy and healthy people. Holiday shopping, visiting relatives, endless parties and even home decorating can be overwhelming and stressful for some. For others, the memories of previous holidays, and friends and loved ones that have died can leave people, especially the elderly, feeling lonely and isolated.

Often times, it takes more than Gingerbread cookies or cruising neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights to chase the blues away. When the stress has turned into prolonged periods of restless nights, loss of appetite and the general blahs, it is time to seek help from a primary-care physician or counselor.

"People who are depressed look at things with gray glasses," said Dr. Thomas Wise, chairman of the psychiatric medicine division of behavioral sciences for Inova Fairfax Hospital. "Everything is filtered through the bad and negative."

ACCORDING TO THE NATIONAL Alliance for the Mentally Ill Web site, depression is a "biologically-based brain disorder that affects a person's thoughts, feelings, behavior and physical health."

In general, depression can be characterized by long periods — more than two weeks — of "feeling lousy," lack of interest or joy in everyday things, trouble sleeping, lack of energy, poor appetite and lack of concentration. In older people, it can also include memory problems, confusion, social withdrawal, irritability and in some cases delusions or hallucinations.

Wise said about one out of every 12 people will have a depressive episode sometime in their life.

"This is a time of the year when there are so much expectations," said Marcia Greco, the mental health manager for adult services at the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. "We're all suppose to look like a Hallmark card. In reality, we all overspend. We spend time with people we usually wouldn't. It just doesn't quite match up with what we see on TV."

Wise said the holidays bring on a sense of there being a lot of things to do and little time to do it in, which can become overwhelmingly stressful.

"The holiday blues are people feeling lonely and depressed and being told everything is wonderful," Wise said. "Actually, for someone who is depressed, it's horrible. It just magnifies everything."

The holidays can also increase feelings of loneliness and isolation even though there are plenty of activities and events going on.

"The holidays bring up memories. Some are good, others are of nightmares passed," Greco said. "People get sick and that can make the whole thing worse. For the elderly, the ones who don't have much family, they feel isolated and alone."

THERE ARE SEVERAL WAYS to combat depression, ranging from simply lowering holiday expectations to seeking professional help.

However, in some cases, the people suffering from depression are reluctant to admit they have problem. Then it is up to family and friends to get the person talking about their feelings and if necessary, contacting the person's primary-care physician.

"Even giving them a pamphlet about the symptoms of depression can be an ice breaker," Greco said. You don't want to push the issue unless it's serious, such as thoughts of suicide. Otherwise provide gentle nudging."

Wise said it can be hard for people suffering from depression to accept help because of feelings of unworthiness. Another way to help the person is by suggesting that he or she join a support group or even a charitable organization.

"For some people who are not so depressed, they can seek out groups where they can help others," Wise said.

In most cases, family and friends will have to be persistent in their efforts to have a loved one seek help.

"Use medical analyses. For example, tell them if they had a broke leg, you would insist they go and get it fixed," Wise said. "There are a lot of healthy people running around that are depressed."