Holiday Blues

Dr. Dominic Maxwell, medical director at the Island Counseling Center. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Judging by the attendance at a talk by Dr. Dominic Maxwell in the MVRHS library last Thursday, more than a few Vineyarders don’t necessarily feel the holiday spirit — at least not in a good way. As the first in this winter’s series of talks by experts sponsored by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), Dr. Maxwell addressed the topic “Holiday Blues.”

Dr. Maxwell, a psychiatrist who is the medical director for MVCS’s Island Counseling Center, described the three contributing factors that lead to the non-clinical, but very real problem, of holiday-based depression — psychological factors, financial situations, and physical factors.

Topping the list of psychological causes is unrealistic expectations, according to Dr. Maxwell. He spoke of how some people strive for a “Norman Rockwell” experience (as he described it) or try to recreate ideal holidays from the past.

The absence of loved ones, either due to death, divorce, or simply non-participation in a family holiday, is often a problem, as attested to by a couple of members of the audience. On the other hand, the family that is present may be the problem.

“Don’t use the holidays as a time to confront family issues,” Dr. Maxwell said. “If you haven’t gotten along with someone for 20 years, you’re probably not going to get along with them now, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen them.”

Physical challenges during the holidays include overindulging in food and alcohol and exhaustion due to overextending oneself. “Saying no is a very important part of getting through the holidays intact and enjoying yourself,” Dr. Maxwell said. That advice includes declining invitations when activities and responsibilities begin to feel overwhelming and putting a moratorium on spending on gifts and holiday parties.

In response to a question about natural remedies, Dr. Maxwell suggested avoiding caffeine, sugar, and food containing large amounts of tyramine (a naturally occurring compound found in most pork products, cheese, and cured meats, among other things). Alcohol is often a culprit in mood fluctuations. Dr. Maxwell noted that sugar and alcohol consumption often increase during the holiday season.

The full title of the talk was “Holiday Blues: When is it depression and when is it not?” Dr. Maxwell pointed out that though the symptoms of both clinical depression and holiday blues are similar — feelings of sadness, unhappiness, stress, and fatigue — there is a difference.

“The hallmark of the holiday blues is that it’s temporary,” Dr. Maxwell said. “If the blues linger on for more than a week or ten days after the holidays then it may be a depression.” If it’s the latter, Dr. Maxwell recommended seeking professional help.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some form of depression affects one in ten adults in the U.S. “There is an increased incidence of depression, mental health visits, and the blues both during and after the holidays,” Dr. Maxwell said. “Holiday blues will pass but depression lingers.” He stressed that anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should go immediately to the emergency room at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

Tom Bennett, Island Counseling Center’s associate executive director and senior clinical advisor, explained the relationship between the Hospital and Island Counseling, which is summoned by the hospital in cases of mental illness issues, including severe depression.

Also in attendance was Joy Ganapol, senior clinical advisor for Island Counseling, and both she and Mr. Bennett added quite a bit to the discussion. A number of questions from the audience had to do with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the use of light boxes to alleviate its effects. Dr. Maxwell explained how the devices work and some members of the audience shared their experiences with this treatment. which has proven very effective.

The speaker series was launched by Community Services last winter and will continue with a once-a-month talk through April. “We started it as part of our 50th anniversary celebration and decided to continue it to provide this kind of educational program to the public,” MVCS executive director Julia Burgess said. As for last week’s topic she said, “So many people get lonely over the Christmas season and go through anxiety. It’s also a time that the suicide rate historically goes up and suicide is something that we’re very concerned about.”

Ms. Burgess noted that the speaker series is designed to represent the various services offered by MVCS. In January, Disability Services will be hosting a talk on sensory integration; in February, Jeanine Fitzgerald of Early Childhood Programs will be the speaker; in March, Island Counseling will sponsor a panel talk with experts in complementary medicine practices; and in April, CONNECT to End Violence will host a talk on domestic violence. All talks are free and open to the public.