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The Truth Behind The Holiday Blues

The Truth Behind The Holiday BluesTufts School of Medicine professor Dr. Ronald Pies debunks some common myths about the holiday blues.

Boston [12.04.06] With the winter holidays right around the corner, seasonal obligations, including holiday parties, gift shopping and family gatherings, are ramping up. While the end of the year can be an overwhelming and stressful time for some, one Tufts School of Medicine professor wrote in The Boston Globe that the traditional notion of the "holiday blues" may be a bit off-base.

"We've all heard about the holiday blues, but much of what we think we know about them may be wrong," Pies wrote in the Globe. "The notion that the winter months lead to a big surge in suicide is generally not supported by careful studies."

Pies, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts School of Medicine, cited research from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control indicating that, in the United States, suicide rates are highest in late spring and lowest during the winter months. Attempted suicides, however, may be more common shortly after the winter holidays, according to some European studies.

"In one Danish study, there were fewer suicide attempts than expected just before Christmas," Pies wrote, noting that researchers have not yet tried to replicate these types of studies in the United States. "But just after Christmas, there were approximately 40 percent more attempts than expected. There were also more suicide attempts than expected on New Year's Day."

In the article, Pies offered a possible explanation for the post-holiday rise in attempted suicides.

"It may be that these post-holiday 'attempts' are mostly 'cries for help,' such as minor overdoses in the presence of family," he wrote. "The apparently delayed effect on suicide attempts has given rise to the 'broken promise' hypothesis -- in effect, that many people go into the winter holidays with unrealistically high expectations and wind up disappointed by harsh realities."

While research indicates that suicide attempts may surge just after the holidays, Pies pointed out in the Globe that heart attacks may also be more common during the festive winter months.

One study, Pies wrote, "found that both cardiac and noncardiac mortality increased around Christmas and New Year's Day -- perhaps because the holiday season is unusually stressful or because distracted holiday partygoers tend to delay urgently needed medical treatment." He added, "Heavy alcohol consumption may also contribute to deaths around New Year's Day."

Pies pointed out another possible cause of people's mood changes during the holidays: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

"Folks with SAD typically notice that their mood plummets in the late fall or early winter," he wrote in the Globe. "They often put on a great deal of weight and sleep much more than usual in winter. Some of these individuals also notice that when spring arrives, their mood and energy level go a bit above normal."

While there are several culprits to blame for the "holiday blues," Pies offered people some advice for avoiding seasonal mood swings.

"It certainly pays to keep your holiday expectations within reason: Holidays are rarely idylls of familial harmony," he wrote. "Avoiding 'burnout' is probably a good way to avoid the blues, so it's a good idea to delegate as much holiday planning, cooking, and cleaning as possible."

He recommended that people eat and drink sensibly during the holiday season and visit a doctor if they are ill. Pies also encouraged people to seek help from a physician, a mental health professional, a clergy member or a close friend if they are feeling exceptionally down. Otherwise, Pies wrote, just hang in there.

"The holiday blues usually pass in a few days or weeks," Pies wrote in the Globe. "With a little planning and forethought, most of us can look forward to a happy holiday season."

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