News Release: Research

Dec. 23,  2008

Holidays May Not Be the 'Happiest Time of the Year' for Everybody

From Woodruff Health Sciences Center News

Our culture tells us that we are supposed to feel a certain way because it's the holidays, but real emotions do not flourish just because we are told we should.

From the beginning of November, individuals are bombarded with accouterments of the season.

"The stimulus is overwhelming and when the brain gets satiated things are less pleasurable," says Charles Raison, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine.

In addition, for many individuals the holidays have become a yearly assessment of personal relationships, career and financial issues, and generally how we compare ourselves to other people.

"The holidays can be a reminder of how we perceive ourselves," he says. "This year in particular, with so many Americans out of work, worried about their retirement savings or just generally concerned about how the slumping economy might affect them, the holidays may not feel so joyous.

"To be face to face with a situation where we feel as though we don't measure up is devastating," says Raison.

And, the holidays can be a time of stark loneliness. "For a great number of Americans, families are scattered and it may not be possible to travel long distances to be together. 

"Particularly troubling is the loss of a loved one, which may pervade the consciousness, especially if that person was fond of holiday celebrations," he says.

Raison gives us some tips that might help us cope:

  • Maximize relationships with people who are in your life right now. If you cannot be with family, get together with people in your own social context - friends, co-workers or church groups.
  • Minimize expenses.  Make a deal with everyone on your gift list to eliminate gifts or stick to a budget that is reasonable.
  • Admit that the holidays are stressful. We are happiest when we drop the false self. People who seem to enjoy the holidays may just be good actors!
  • If you tend to feel sorry for yourself at holiday time, be proactive and try to use the season to help other people. If you can afford it, make an anonymous gift.  If you enjoy volunteer work, find a charitable organization to keep you distracted, or find out what you can do to help someone who is in a nursing home and has no family.
  • If you know someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, be sympathetic to that person's situation.
  • Be good to yourself. Relax. Take a walk or go for a ride on Christmas day when it is quiet. The peacefulness makes you feel better.

A certain amount of anxiety during the holidays may be normal," says Raison. "But if you find that you are experiencing symptoms of depression and nothing you do seems to help, get treatment. Don't put it off.

"Depression is just like any other illness - the longer you let it go, the worse it gets and the harder it is to treat," notes Raison.

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