MAIN LIBRARY — Conventional wisdom has it that the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year.

But, just ask any psychiatrist and you’ll learn that for many people, December is synonymous not with merry making but with feelings of loneliness, sadness and even despair.

Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a UCLA psychiatrist, said it’s fairly common for people with stresses in their lives to feel low around the holidays.

Part of the reason, he said, is that the holidays, like birthdays and anniversaries, are times when people tend to examine their lives and take stock of what they have. For many, the focus inevitably falls on what’s missing, Leuchter told an audience at the Main Library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium at a symposium sponsored by the UCLA Health System last week.

Am I moving forward? Am I achieving my goals? Am I doing better than I was last year?

They’re questions that can put anyone in a tailspin. For some, the holidays are also when it’s most difficult to avoid zeroing in on the gaps in their lives. A relationship that isn’t working, a family member who passed away or even a loved one who doesn’t make the effort to attend family functions — all of these things can take the shine off the festive time of the year.

When feeling low around the holidays, Leuchter said there are a number of things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to differentiate between clinical depression and a case of the seasonal blues.

Serious depression usually causes a low mood in conjunction with physical symptoms like sleep disturbance (both the inability to get a good night’s sleep and excessive sleeping can be signs of depression), a change in energy level, physical aches and pains and a change in appetite. Psychiatrists say the symptoms of major depression have to last at least two weeks.

If December has you feeling down, here are some psychiatrist-approved tips to keep in mind:

Appreciate what you have

It’s most likely a good idea not to dwell on the past.

“Holidays are about the here and now,” Leuchter said. “It’s not about reflecting on who you’ve lost or what you don’t have.”

Focus on what you’ve got rather than on what you don’t — even if it’s not what you want.

Try not to be alone

Don’t fret about who isn’t around or who doesn’t want you around. Find whatever community you do have and get engaged. Establishing connections is at the root of getting in the holiday spirit.

Be flexible

For many, holidays are when they most notice the shifts in roles that occur throughout life. Maybe Christmas or Chanukah always used to be at your house, but now your children have grown up and are hosting their own celebrations. According to Leuchter, it’s important to accept these changes and allow people to have their new identities. Instead of seeing the change as a loss, try to see it as an exciting new part of life and do your best to adapt.

Limit alcohol intake

Some people drink because they’re feeling down. But according to Leuchter, excessive drinking is actually a factor that causes depression. While holiday functions usually mean a drink is never far away, don’t fall into a vicious cycle by overdoing it.

Learn when to cut losses

There are some relationships that have such a troubled history that it’s best not to fret every time something goes wrong. If a family member or someone else in your life is a constant source of bad feelings, it’s probably best to take comfort in knowing you’ve done your best and move on.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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