A. The holiday season has always been a cause for celebration around the world. The opportunity to take a break from work, be frivolous, go on holiday, meet family and friends – all good reasons to look forward to the holidays with enthusiasm and anticipation. Or at least that is what we are led to believe.
B. Research carried out in America suggests that these feelings of euphoria may be somewhat misplaced. A study recently carried out by New York University Child Study Centre has concluded that one in three people of varying ages suffer ‘holiday blues’ to varying extents, from a mild feeling of sadness to severe, sometimes even suicidal, depression. The effects can manifest themselves in many ways, such as an inability to sleep or sleeping too much, overeating or undereating, headaches or drinking too much. The report also concluded that not only are there a number of complex causes that can trigger such depression (psychological and biological), there are an equal number of opinions as to the best solution.
C. According to Dr Frank Pittman, a leading family psychiatrist, the most significant cause for holiday depression actually stems from our concerns about our family. During the holiday season, families meet, often for the first time since the last holiday season, and try to make these reunions ‘perfect’. In fact, says Pittman, we count on the holidays to compensate for the rest of the year. He himself comments that ‘I wanted to make up to the family for not having been a good enough father and uncle all year’. However, such good intentions are often thwarted by old family arguments, feelings of not being appreciated or being used, all of which result in holiday stress. It seems that the idyllic picture of our family we wish to build in our minds cannot be sustained in reality.
D. Although Pittman holds family to be the source of much of the problem, others point to a more general social context. Gift shopping, for example, does not help reduce tensions – crowded shops, long queues, the pressure of choosing just the right present – all of these things contribute to a feeling of stress and anxiety. On the other end of the scale, there are those without family who experience a sense of extreme loneliness and isolation throughout this period, often spending the long holidays alone. Any feelings of inadequacy they may harbour throughout the year can often become unbearable at a time when friends are unavailable and enjoying an apparently cosy break with their loved ones. In fact, such is the extreme nature of this isolation that many organisations have been established to offer some help and support to those who feel most alone over what should be the ‘festive’ season.
E. Others, however, argue that more scientific explanations carry an equal weight in explaining holiday blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it is more commonly known, is also held responsible for winter depression. A natural reaction to falling levels of sunlight, the pineal gland secretes the hormone melatonin, which has the effect of slowing the body down. When days get shorter, more of the hormone is released causing sufferers to become lethargic and miserable. From being industrious people with plenty of energy, SAD sufferers find themselves increasingly weary and unable to sustain any prolonged activity, a situation which often leads to depression. In addition, for many people this has a major impact not only on their personal life but also on their professional life, as employers often see this lack of productivity in terms of laziness or unwillingness to work. As a result, SAD has been linked directly to the high rate of suicide in a number of Scandinavian countries during winter months, when there are often a few hours of sunlight a day.
F. The good news for SAD sufferers is that there is a cure, and as far as many medical cures go this is relatively simple. As the cause is lack of bright light, the treatment is to be in bright light every day. This can obviously be achieved by staying in a brightly lit climate, explaining why skiing holidays are so popular as they allow people to get plenty of sunlight as well as providing a stimulating activity. Another method is by using light therapy, in which patients sit in front of a lamp which acts in the same way as sunlight. To be more specific, the light should be about as bright as early morning sunshine, and the user should allow the light to reach the eyes for anything up to one hour a day in order to alleviate the symptoms. There are a number of companies currently manufacturing these lights as a health aid and they are even being prescribed by some doctors. In addition, they can be bought at considerably less than the cost of a holiday.
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G. Whatever fundamental reason underpins holiday depression, it seems reasonable to argue that the phenomenon does indeed exist. Voluntary support services, offering counseling services to those who need the unbiased and friendly voice of a stranger to help them work through their unhappiness report a significant increased demand for their services during holiday periods such as Christmas and the New Year