Holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years Eve are festive occasions that most of us look forward to with pleasure. They can be a time for family and friends, religious celebrations and togetherness, filled with good cheer and happiness. However, for many the holidays can be quite the opposite.

This can often be a period filled with anxiety, stress and tension associated with family conflicts, loneliness, financial burdens, and the general fatigue that comes with the added demands and obligations of the season. Any one or combination of factors can result in holiday depression, commonly referred to as the holiday blues. These are characterised by a lack of energy, pervasive sadness, irritability, somatic complaints such as frequent headaches, and insomnia.

Depression can occur in the days or weeks leading up to the holidays, but is more often experienced after the holiday season has passed, when reactions to the stress-creating factors and disappointments of the preceding weeks are more likely to surface. Some professionals attribute the increase in the number of clients at mental health facilities following this period to the holiday blues.

Family conflicts are a common source of stress during the holiday season, as unresolved problems lying just below the surface tend to explode. Other factors, such as divorce or illness, may also burden an already strained holiday gathering.

The season can be very stressful for those who are alone because of physical or emotional distance from their family and friends; since the season is above all a time to be shared, they can be especially vulnerable.

The commercialism of the holidays also provides a fertile environment for financial worries, as it is not uncommon that people overextend themselves during the festive season. Debt is a common source of stress at any time of year.

The demands and obligations of the holiday season usually result in altered lifestyles and schedules. People tend to work harder and longer hours to meet deadlines and finish year-end projects. They eat differently and often more than usual, socialise more and sleep less than they otherwise would. Exercise routines are often neglected or abandoned altogether at this time of year. Alcohol consumption typically increases, and people often drink much more than they should. Since alcohol is a depressant and interferes with the sleep cycle, over-

indulgence only adds to existing stress.

The delusion abounds that physical stamina magically increases during the holidays. Many believe that they can work longer hours at the office, attend more social gatherings, over-indulge, get less exercise and sleep, and somehow function as always.

Unrealistic expectations are one of the biggest factors contributing to stress and leading to holiday depression. If there is a significant difference between what we believe should be and what is, then unhappiness, frustration and disappointment usually result. And for many people, what happens during the holidays does not match what they expected or wanted to happen.

Editing and rewriting ones expectations is one of the most effective ways to avoid this disappointment and frustration throughout the year, but it is not an easy task.

Try to separate fantasy from reality. Spending more than a month preparing for the perfect holiday invites disappointment and unhappiness, because despite what the media has conditioned us to believe, perfect doesnt exist. Attempts to recreate the holidays of years gone by are also destined to fail, leading to frustration and disappointment.

Family conflicts, sadness and loneliness dont magically disappear with the festive season. If your mother takes every opportunity to criticise you throughout the year, it is unlikely that her behaviour is going to change during the holidays. Realise that contrary to what we may believe or may have been taught, there is room for sadness and loneliness. It is important to give yourself permission to mourn a loss, or to feel the loneliness of being separated from family and friends.

The spirit of the holidays and the commercialism of the season are often difficult to separate, so buying gifts becomes the priority and the true meaning of giving is lost along the way. Think about what the holidays mean to you, not what you are told they mean, and then act on those feelings. Someone very wise once made the observation that happiness comes from wanting what you have, rather than having what you want.

Tips for a happy holiday season

* Organise your time / pace yourself

* Dont be afraid to celebrate in a new way

* Do something for someone else / volunteer

* Contact someone with whom youve lost touch

* Dont be afraid to say no to invitations

* Spend time with people who are supportive

* Ask yourself (more than once) if your

expectations are realistic

Rose Kazma holds an MA in clinical psychology and has been in private practice for 15 years. She has taught psychology and also worked as a cross-cultural consultant to businesses. An Italian-American, she lives and practices in Rome.