Post-Winter Holidays: Hibernation or Depression?

By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

The holiday season is just about over. The presents are unwrapped. The relatives have left. The leftovers are almost gone. Some things went well. Some didn’t. There were moments of pleasure and joy and moments of disappointment and frustration. The roller coaster of activities and emotions is sliding to a stop. As you bite the head off the last gingerbread man, you sigh and wonder “Now what?” Coming down from the holidays can feel like a come-down. But it’s also a new beginning.

After the many festivals of light in mid-winter (Ramadan, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Bodhi Day, Christmas, Kwanzaa) comes the time of the dark — a quiet time for gathering ourselves for the daylight to come. Not so long ago, winter was a time for lying low, for repairing tools, doing hand work, spinning cloth, and spinning tales. Because the central fire provided the only warmth in colder climates, families gathered around it to entertain children, to catch up on tasks that had been put off or neglected, and to plan for the next season.

In such close quarters, people had to learn get along, to work together and, at times, to respect each other’s periodic need for solitude and silence even when huddled together. When spring came, people were rested and ready for the next spurt of activity. As soon as the sap started to run, people and creatures also felt the call to reemerge from their caves (whether literal or figurative) and to get busy.

In a time of central heating, on demand TV, individual computers, and mass produced goods, we mostly ignore the natural rhythm to things. Instead of convening around the fire, we go off to our own rooms. Instead of sharing our time and telling stories to children, we send them off to play and go our own busy ways. Instead of taking a break from our usual work to do needed reflection and to plan, we push on. We have lost an important forum for learning patience for ourselves and tolerance for others. We seem to have forgotten that January and February are for quiet even though something in our spirits still longs for a time of hibernation.

Unfortunately, the tendency in American culture is to make a natural down time into a problem. We give it the clinical name of “depression” or the not-so-clinical name of “the blues.” We tell ourselves to snap out of it. We tell others who are pulled more into themselves that they should buck up, get with the program, produce. We may look to medicine to override our inclination to curl up with a book or just curl up. Where did we get the idea that once the holidays are over we’re supposed to flip a switch and get back to business as usual? Where did we get the idea that any deviation from full participation and enjoyment of every single minute, regardless of the season, means that something is wrong?

What Is and Isn’t Depression?

There’s a difference between a genuine diagnosis of depression and the natural wintertime pull to rest and regroup. A diagnosis of a clinical depression requires that five or more of the following symptoms have been present during the same two-week period and present a change from one’s usual level of functioning. Please note the “and.” Both must be going on. At least one of your symptoms must be a depressed mood or loss of ability to take pleasure in things you usually like. Further, the symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Symptoms of depression (according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – IV-R) include:

  1. Depressed mood most of the day nearly every day.
  2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
  3. Significant change in appetite nearly every day or a change of more than 5 percent of your body weight within a month.
  4. Sleeping too much or too little nearly every day.
  5. Being observably restless or agitated, or being observably slowed down.
  6. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
  8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness nearly every day.
  9. Recurrent thought of death, suicidal ideation, or an attempt, or a plan to commit suicide.

If you truly meet five or more of these criteria, including either No. 1 or No. 2, you should get yourself to a mental health provider for a professional evaluation. Real depression is miserable. It makes it difficult to function at work or in school, to be good to others, and to care about yourself. Fortunately, with a combination of talk therapy and some medication, it can be managed and you can feel better. Really. Most people do respond to treatment. (See the Psych Central’s depression resources for a more complete discussion of clinical depression.)

Hibernation Isn’t Depression

But if you are simply feeling subdued and a little out of sorts after the holidays, if you are needing more solitude, if you are looking for quieter activities and enjoy cleaning out your desk more than hanging out in the break room for the next few weeks, maybe you aren’t suffering from depression at all. Maybe you are just responding to the cycle of nature. What looks like the blues may be your system insisting on a time for slowing down a bit and for doing internal creative work before the renewal of Spring.

If that’s the case, you don’t need medical or psychiatric attention. Instead, you need to embrace this time and allow yourself a little hibernation.

Do the things that help restore your energy and spirit. Eat right. Get to the gym if you love it. Go for walks if you don’t. Give yourself the gift of some alone time to think, to daydream, to read, or to just plain do nothing. Treat yourself to things that pamper you like a hot bath or a massage. Get out in nature. Really talk to a friend. Read to a child. Print out the pictures from your digital camera and put them in albums. Replace buttons. Stay away from crowds and from people who cause you stress. Spend time with the people who love you the most. Count your blessings.

You can be a good friend without being a party animal. You can take some time and space for personal recovery and reflection without being rude or lazy. By slowing down a bit and de-stressing, you’ll actually end up more productive, not less. By setting priorities, you can get important things done and still make room for some healthy hibernation.

Downtime Can Be Good Time

As you set your house back in order by putting away decorations and using up the last of the party food, consider taking the time to put your mind and spirit back in order too. The holidays are over. Downtime can be good time when you give yourself permission to rest, regroup, and re-energize. Spring, with all its energy and promise, will be here soon.

 

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2008). Post-Winter Holidays: Hibernation or Depression?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/post-winter-holidays-hibernation-or-depression/0001314
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.