The Christmas season brings joy to millions, yet too many of us feel anxious and depressed this time of year. According to The American Psychological Association, 38 percent of people surveyed said their stress increased during the holiday season, which can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse.
To make matters worse, the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64 percent of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays.
There are many reasons people wrestle with the holiday blues, some we can control, others we can't.
SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder
We go into the holiday season with a time change, which all by itself increases the incidence of depression from less sunlight, a condition often referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. However, we can trick our minds into thinking we're catching some rays by using so-called "happy lights," according to psychiatrist Daniel Amen, founder of Amen Clinics, which has the world's largest database of brain scans for psychiatry.
"Head to head against antidepressants for seasonal depression, bright light therapy has been found to be more effective," Dr. Amen told CBN News, "You can get a bright light therapy box, spend 20 to 30 minutes in front of it. It increases your mood, your focus, you memory, your energy."
Lifestyle Choices Influence Mood
Many of us press pause during the holidays when it comes to taking care of ourselves, which can leave us feeling sad and overwhelmed.
"You do not have to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus by doing bad things," said Dr. Amen, such as drinking too much alcohol.
"There's a whole increase in alcohol the last two months of the year, and alcohol is a depressant," explained Dr. Amen, who added it "helps you feel good now, but clearly not tomorrow."
The same can be said about over-indulging in holiday sweets.
"Sugar is pro-inflammatory," Dr. Amen said, "which means it increases inflammation in your body, and inflammation is clearly associated with depression."
On the other hand, Dr. Amen says a healthy diet can be a mood lifter.
"You should try to get five servings of colorful fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats like olive oil and avocadoes, nuts and seeds, healthy fish, all decrease the risk of depression," he said.
Getting plenty of sleep also goes a long way towards good mental health
Walk Like You're Late
During the holiday rush, don't skip workouts. Exercise is one of the best ways to stave-off depression and keep stress at bay. Dr. Amen said while hitting the gym is great, you don't have to go to a lot of fuss.
"I often say walk like you're late," said Dr. Amen, pointing to a study comparing sedentary people on an antidepressant with people who walked like they were late for 45 minutes four times a week.
"What they found was at the end of 12 weeks they were equally less depressed," he said. "At the end of 10 months the exercise group was way better than the antidepressant group."
Sometimes grief and loneliness intensify during the holidays, but can lift when we do things that cause us to connect with and give to others.
"Do what you can, either through your church, or your work, or your community. Be helpful, and in that way you'll be less lonely, you'll be more purposeful, that will help your brain," Dr. Amen said.
He cited a Baltimore study that measured the mental health benefits of volunteering.
"They looked at brain scans of people who volunteered and those who didn't," Dr. Amen explained, "The group that didn't volunteer, their hippocampus, the major memory structure in the brain, actually became smaller. The group that volunteered, that got out of themselves to help other people, that part of the brain grew."
Getting involved with family, however, can be tricky. Many say their source of stress during the holidays stems from familial conflict. Dr. Amen recommends keeping expectations low to avoid becoming disappointed.
"What's the best predictor of behavior? It's past behavior," Dr. Amen said, "How people have been is generally how they're going to be, unless they do important things like get help, get therapy, for the issues that they have."
With that in mind, Dr. Amen said if you feel disrespected by certain people, it's alright to cut short holiday visits with them.
"We teach people how to treat us by what we tolerate," Dr. Amen said.
Control Your Thoughts
Dr. Amen says sometimes the root problem of depression and anxiety stems from perpetually negative self-talk. To turn that around, Dr. Amen recommends paying attention to our thoughts, then challenging them and replacing them, if necessary.
"Whenever you're feeling sad, mad, nervous or out of control," he explained, "Write down what you're thinking, and just go, 'Is that really true?'"
Amen says one example of false thinking is the belief that we need to spend more money than we can afford on Christmas gifts. He recommends staying within a reasonable budget which can even include homemade gifts from the heart.