By Laura Shin
While department stores dress up their windows and shoppers search for the perfect gifts, those who work in the mental health profession prepare for the holidays in a different way: making sure New Yorkers stay healthy and happy during the holiday season.
"The holidays are often markers for people," said Lisa Brateman, a New York City-based psychotherapist and relationship specialist. "It's a time when people compare themselves to others, whether in their career or their relationships."
While the holidays are often expected to be the happiest time of the year, it is a time that can bring on sadness or depression as individuals compare their lives to others or contemplate where they were in their lives in the previous year, Brateman said.
"We're bombarded this time of year by what it means to have someone. When a person doesn't have someone, they start to wonder, 'What's wrong with me? Why can't I have that?'" she said.
Images in the media are often to blame for setting these expectations. If someone is feeling lonely during the holidays, Brateman advises that they surround themselves with people they like and not isolate themselves further. For example, a person shouldn't decide not to attend a party because he or she does not want to go alone.
Janet Pfeiffer, a motivational speaker and president of Pfeiffer Power Seminars, tells her clients to redefine what the holidays mean and create new traditions.
"I worked serving dinner to nursing home residents on Thanksgiving after my marriage ended," she said. "I never enjoyed Thanksgiving as much as I did then."
But even people who are not alone during the holidays can experience the holiday blues. Brateman said she often sees her past patients return during the holiday months, and she sees the largest number of new patients during this time than any other part of the year.
"Who to spend time with on Christmas Eve or New Year's-unless you find a system that works for everyone, that's a problem that repeatedly comes up every year," she said. "That's a matter of handling conflict and outside pressures from family."
There are many sources of stress and anxiety during the holidays that can trigger depression, said Marty Forth, senior director of teen programs and service for the YMCA of Greater New York, who also oversees the organization's mental health work.
"What we've seen is there's a lot of stress in the parents or guardians and it manifests itself through them or through the kids," he said.
The YMCA refers families to mental health services when appropriate, but one thing the organization does during the holidays is work with the families to make their lives easier. For example, they take on Christmas lists and recruit individuals to buy the gifts.
"It's one less thing to worry about," Forth said. "Finances are a huge part of the stress."
Many YMCA locations also provide holiday meals, serving thousands of people with the help of donated food and local volunteers.
In addition to financial stress, overstretched schedules and simply trying to do too much can bring on the blues, Forth said. He advises doing everything in moderation and realizing that you can't say yes to everything.
Holiday depression and holiday blues should not be confused with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a depression that affects people the same time each year, said Brateman. The symptoms are similar to regular depression, and while experts are unsure of the cause, it is often associated with a lack of sunlight.
"Holiday blues are different. The holidays can bring different feelings, but it is not seasonal depression," she said.
The holidays can be an especially difficult time for someone mourning the loss of a loved one.
"There are a lot more reminders around the holidays, and you feel the loss a lot more," Brateman said. "Take a moment or an hour to feel those feelings instead of acting busy and pretending you're not feeling it."
While holiday depression has many triggers, there are also effective solutions.
"I think one of the most important things is to not base how you feel on what everyone else is doing," Brateman said. "What's important is to keep one's life in perspective."