Posted December 4, 2015
by Stephanie Dodaro
Although dealing with grief is difficult any time of year, the holiday season can magnify the bereaved’s sense of sadness and loss. The holidays are traditionally spent with friends and family, making merry and celebrating traditions. For those going through divorce, caring for the terminally ill, or mourning, the festivities can remind them of their loved one’s absence and serve as a sharp contrast to their suffering. Other holiday obligations such as buying gifts, traveling, and spending time with difficult or unsupportive relatives can further strain the bereaved. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with grief during the holidays, or feel like you may be experiencing depression, reach out for support.
It’s important to understand the difference between the normal grieving process and clinical depression. Bereavement is a normal, albeit painful, part of life. Although the length and style of the grieving process varies from person to person and culture to culture, it’s typified by intense feelings of sadness and loss.
Both mourners and those with depression may feel sad or isolated, have trouble sleeping, lose their appetite, and take little interest or pleasure in doing things. They may feel that their emotions and circumstances are out of their control.
However, depression also includes more self-destructive symptoms, such as constant anxiety, agitation, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of hurting oneself.
While mourners are also occasionally cheered by happy memories of loved ones, those with depression experience unrelenting negative feelings and self-talk. In addition, though grief eventually subsides and people begin to come to terms with their losses, depression is a physical illness that doesn’t relent and can’t be reasoned or willed away.
To further complicate the diagnosis, stress and grieving can worsen symptoms for people with depression and trigger episodes in those who are prone to it.
If you are working through grief during the holiday season, here are some coping tips and tools to keep in mind:
If you are grieving and feel overwhelmed, don’t have the energy to take care of yourself, or have had depressive symptoms for more than two weeks, please don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Your health care provider can help determine whether you’re experiencing prolonged mourning or clinical depression, and recommend appropriate care. They may suggest that you attend a grief or depression support group, or see a psychologist for counseling.
If you have debilitating or longstanding symptoms of depression, you may be referred to a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs for short- or long-term use. Some psychiatrists may also prescribe them for people without depression, to assist with symptoms of grief. Others believe that mourning is a normal life process and should be allowed to take its course unaided. In addition, drugs used to treat depression can cause side effects, which may be more pronounced in non-depressives. These side effects may include a reduction in the ability to feel and express emotion, which can stunt or prolong the grieving process. If your doctor recommends these medications, or you feel you may want to try them, be sure to discuss and research their impact thoroughly.
Patients with severe or treatment-resistant depression also have the option of TMS therapy, a non-invasive outpatient treatment that uses magnetic energy to stimulate brain receptors and relieve major depression. Approved by the FDA in 2008, a course of TMS typically includes three to five sessions lasting 30-60 minutes. Studies find TMS to be twice as effective as antidepressants, with far fewer side effects.
Whether you’re mourning or feel that your grief may have triggered depression, make sure you get the proper diagnosis and the assistance you need to support yourself during the holidays and beyond.