Keep The Holiday Blues At Bay

The festive season is usually a joyous time. But for some, the holidays may bring unwelcome guests such as stress and depression, taking an emotional toll on you and the people around you.

In temperate countries, people get depressed due to the shorter days and grey weather that increases the incidence of seasonal affective disorder. However, in tropical Singapore, the monsoon season and higher rainfall hardly brings about these detrimental effects. So, why do Singaporeans get the blues?

Holiday blues can come from an emphasis on the perfect party or reunion celebration, unrealistic expectations, excessive commercialisation, and the exchange of expensive gifts and ang bao over Christmas and the Lunar New Year. These periods can also trigger excessive self-reflection, new year resolutions and comparisons to others, leading to a ‘victim’ mentality. High anxiety is another factor: besides the pressure to find relevant presents, there is the expectation to mingle with people whom we may not want to spend time with while others are reminded of their loneliness due to the loss of a loved one.

“Even the thought of spring cleaning or meeting relatives, whom they see only once a year, and fielding uncomfortable questions can lead to holiday blues,” stresses Ms Tan Lili, the Executive Director of the Singapore Association for Mental Health. She adds that some clients become more noticeably stressed during festive periods.

A sign of something deeper
Psychologists warn that the holiday blues may be a sign of more serious conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders, that can last beyond the festive season.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, clarifies that the holiday blues are seasonal. “There is a huge expectation to celebrate as a family during the holidays, but many may not have this privilege,” he says. “Patients may feel low in their mood or lonelier during festive seasons, especially if they are grieving over the loss of a loved one or are experiencing anniversary grief when they are reminded of their losses during a holiday. At times, the stress of preparing for a holiday such as Christmas or Chinese New Year, where one may feel the need to provide a perfect party or family meal, can cause a downward spiral of the mood.”

Dr Victor Kwok, the Head of Psychiatry at Sengkang Health, shares that there are some patients with depression who request to be warded during the Lunar New Year. He even had one patient with depression who had a relapse over the period because she was reminded of her late mother.

While there are anecdotal observations from medical professionals, there are no available statistical figures suggesting that depression levels or suicide rates peak during the holiday season, as confirmed by psychologists and the Institute of Mental Health. Ms Christine Wong, the Executive Director of the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), explains that data from their hotline and email befriending services do not show a significant increase in users during festive periods.

However, she notes that some users of these services express greater feelings of loneliness and isolation. “With regards to those who have lost a loved one to suicide, festive periods represent a more painful time of the year for them as they are reminded of their loss. Cards, SMSes and calls that express appreciation are made to these individuals as a form of emotional support in these tender times, but clients may also choose to decline such efforts as they remind them of their lost loved ones.”

Watch out for symptoms
Festive blues are generally observed as low moods accompanied by decreased energy levels. While it is normal to experience such emotions no matter what time of the year, a good indicator of when more attention should be paid to it is how the intensity and duration of these ‘blues’ evolve.

Wong warns, “It can be a concern when individuals show signs of worthlessness, helplessness or intense despair. These ‘blues’ should not be so severe as to impair their daily functioning, such as maintaining personal hygiene and routine social interactions. A consistent, prolonged low mood with such symptoms may point to other more serious underlying concerns, such as depression.”

Friends and family members should pay attention when an individual’s disposition stays out of character for an unusual amount of time, or when highly upsetting life events occur around these periods. Wong adds, “Suicidal ideation or mention of suicide should also ring alarm bells and always be taken seriously, no matter what time of year.” Concurs Dr Lim, “When there are a number of symptoms that are interfering with the normal functioning of the individual or when there are suicidal thoughts, intervention should be sought.”

Managing the blues
Dr Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and the author of Positive Energy, suggests protecting yourself from the energy of ‘vampires’ of the holiday season - drama queens, blamers, criticisers and victims - who deplete your energy reserve. She recommends that you surround yourself with positive people as much as possible.

Wong emphasises that regular self-care is a good practice for anyone caught in the hustle and bustle of modern living; it can prove even more essential during such periods. “Self-care is about paying attention to and making time for our physical, emotional and mental well-being in a non-judgemental way. This can include managing your own expectations, doing things such as eating, drinking, socialising and selfreflection in moderation, and asking for help whenever required.”

Steps to beat the blues
Plan ahead so you can appraise the situation to pace yourself or ask for help in holiday or party planning from friends or family.
Be realistic about your expectations of what you can do. Holidays are for all to enjoy and you don’t need to feel that you must plan the perfect party that pleases everyone.
Maintain strong relationships and surround yourself with loved ones, family and friends. Having people you love around you is a natural protective blanket.
Set personal boundaries regarding money spent and your attendance at social events. Say “no” to party requests and social invitations if you simply prefer some down time to yourself.
Avoid excessive rumination and unrealistic new year resolutions. Seek professional help if you are vulnerable to a recurrence of a depressive disorder.

SYMPTOMS OF HOLIDAY BLUES

  • Low mood/anger
  • Loss of appetite
  • Social withdrawal
  • Difficulty/excessive sleeping
  • Irrational guilty feelings
  • Loss of confidence
  • Suicidal thoughts/behaviour
  • Physical problems such as aches and pains

|