The holiday season can bring with it a much-needed break from everyday life, with traditions once again enjoyed with loved ones. But it can also introduce its own stressors, or heartache, creating a set of mental health challenges that are unintendedly tied into what is meant to be a joyous time of year.
Going beyond mere holiday-related apprehension, research has found holiday depression and holiday stress, sometimes called “the Christmas effect,” to be a very real occurrence. Read on to learn how the holidays detrimentally affect one’s well-being, and what factors have been shown to play a part in this phenomenon.
The holiday season can certainly include its own, added pressures. These include:
It is therefore not surprising that for many, the holidays bring with them extra stress, and even depression. This occurrence is sometimes referred to as winter seasonal depression, linking the wintertime’s reduced amount of sunlight with an increase in depressive symptoms.
Research on mental health during the holiday season has underlined the actual implications that holiday-related circumstances have on the general population’s mental health and psychopathology. The results paint a more complex picture than may be expected.
According to studies, many individuals do, in fact, experience lowered or depressed mood during the holiday season. An increase in alcohol-related deaths during this period has also been noted.
However, psychiatric emergency rooms and psychiatric wards have both reported a significant drop in patient admittance and stays during the holidays, as well as a decrease in suicide attempts. One possible explanation for these findings is that both patients and their support networks are able to approach this season with the hope of faring better than they normally do during the year.
That said, a “rebound phenomenon” has also been found, where psychiatric patients who were released or who avoided admittance during this period return, due to a deterioration of their mental health.
Many holiday-timed articles focused on “Christmas depression,” or the non-denominational holiday depression, elaborate on the more serious aspects of the effect. Specifically, high suicide rates during the holidays are often cited as one of the most concerning repercussions of holiday-related depression.
In reality, however, suicide rates have been consistently shown to be the lowest during the month of December. The widely-accepted narrative that more individuals are driven to suicide during the holiday season seems to be perpetuated by such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and gives a distorted picture of the motivating forces behind suicidality.
Instead, suicide rates have been found to rise when it gets warmer, from March into the summer. This finding seemingly goes against the rise in seasonal depression during the winter months. So how do the two coincide?
One suggested explanation, for both higher rates of winter seasonal depression, and lower rates of winter suicidality, actually describes winter seasonal depression as a protective element against suicide: The winter brings with it less light and less energy. This, in turn, leaves less energy to act upon depressive thinking, or suicidal motivation. In other words, though more individuals may ascribe their depressive symptoms to the gloom of winter, they are nevertheless less likely to act on any feelings of sadness or even hopelessness that arise during this period.
Mental health, the holidays, and the emotions they bring up can induce contradictory, internal experiences. The American Psychological Association (APA) has reaffirmed this, finding that most individuals report feeling both happiness and love, as well as fatigue, sadness, stress, and irritability during this time of year.
The holidays can be an intense period, yet within this medley of new and old stressors, research has also managed to point toward certain choices that can facilitate a reduction in holiday-related stress.
Certain studies have noted the benefits that taking a holiday vacation can have on one’s well-being. Possible explanations for this include vacations allowing more chosen social interactions and developing new aspects of one’s own identity.
Paid vacation leave has also been found to protect against holiday-related threats to one’s mental health. The National U.S. Library of Medicine has noted that the U.S. is the only developed country where workers are not guaranteed paid vacation.
Specifically, research linking paid vacation leave to depression has found that for every ten additional days of paid vacation, chances of developing depression were 36% lower among women in general, 36% among white women in particular, and 38% lower among mothers with two or more children.
Interestingly, no such correlation was found between paid vacation days and men. Yet the above-mentioned decrease in depression rates among women was shown to result in preventing 568,442 cases of diagnosed depression, and in saving the US $2.94 billion each year.
The holiday season affects each individual in their own way. If someone you care about may need additional attention, or professional care, please reach out to let them know they are seen. And if that someone is you, please communicate your own emotional needs to those around you, or to those equipped to offer you support.