Holidays and Mental Health

Română

Winter holidays are supposed to be times full of sugar, spice, and everything nice, but even the most Christmas-cheerful among us have to admit that the reality doesn’t always meet these expectations. On the contrary, the expectation of “a great time” or even “the perfect holiday” tends to bring about a lot of stress and anxiety (just think about the last time you went gift-hunting right before Christmas), as well as depressive symptoms (for example, due to not being able to be around your loved ones). Grounded in these observations, urban legend has it that holidays lead to an increase in mental disorders. More specifically, countless newspaper stories about increases in suicide are thrown at us every year, in an attempt to warn us about the impending doom that the horrifying monster of Christmas is about to rain down on us (of course, in addition to all the other impending doom that constantly threatens our meek existence; because if you’re not scaring your audience, you’re not doing it right). But, coming back, just because a belief is popular, it doesn’t automatically make it true, so in this post we’re asking ourselves: is that really true?

In order to answer this question, studies have focused mainly on three topics: substance abuse, mood disorders, and, finally, self-harm and suicidal behaviour. So let’s look at each of them separately.

Substance abuse

Several studies have reported that, during the holiday period, there is an increase in the number of deaths caused by alcohol poisoning. However, although one reason for this observed increase could be that people are indeed self-medicating with alcohol because holidays make them depressed, there are other potential explanations, which are at least equally plausible. People drink more during festive events because this is a time for relaxation, when they don’t have to worry about the next day’s hangover and they can just let loose. They also tend to consume more alcohol because that’s what others around them are doing. And of course, some need that one (or ten) extra shots just to be able to get through the never-ending annual interrogatory regarding their life plans (or lack thereof).

Mood disorders

At the same time, the same studies have also confirmed that people do tend to report lower moods, decreased life satisfaction, as well as decreased emotional well-being. In other words, it’s true that people tend to feel lousier around Christmas and that these feelings can cause higher depression rates during the holiday season. Based on participants’ reports, these feelings seem to be caused by the belief that others are having a better time.

Self-harm and suicide

But here’s the kicker: self-harm and suicide attempts are actually lower during the Christmas period compared to the rest of the year (although, unfortunately, they tend to spike afterwards). Moreover, there are fewer patients who require admission into the psychiatric emergency services over the holidays, so, in that sense, Christmas seems to have sort of a protective effect against psychiatric pathology.

Conclusion

To sum up, winter holidays do lead to extra alcohol consumption (not a shocker) and more deaths due to alcohol poisoning, as well as an increase in mood disorders. However, the number of suicides, as well as the number of people requiring hospitalization in psychiatric facilities is actually decreasing during Christmas.

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Sources

The Christmas Effect on Psychopathology

Suicide rate is lowest during the holiday season, but news stories continue to say the opposite

Christmas Cheer in the Brain

Română

We all have that one friend who, as soon as December 1st strikes, breaks out the Christmas decorations, starts blasting “Jingle Bells” all day long, and goes on and on about how “’tis the season to be jolly” (hint: if you can’t think who that friend might be, it’s probably you). But what makes some people be overwhelmed by joy and nostalgia in relation to Christmas, while others would rather cut their ears off before listening to yet another merry carol? That’s exactly what a group of scientists at the University of Denmark set out to investigate.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they monitored the brain activity of 20 people while they viewed both Christmas and non-Christmas images. These 20 people were also split into two groups, based on their Christmas celebration habits: 10 of them routinely celebrated Christmas, while the other 10 had absolutely no Christmas-related traditions.

What the researchers found was that the Christmasy group had increased activity in a bunch of brain areas (sensory motor, premotor, and primary motor cortex, as well as the inferior and superior parietal lobules) compared to the non-Christmasy group when viewing Christmas-related images. These areas have been associated with spirituality, experiencing emotions shared with others, and recognition of facial emotions, among others, so if there is such a thing as a representation of the Christmas spirit in the brain, it makes sense to find it in this network.

Grinch’s side

Before you go celebrate these findings with another mug of mulled wine (or drown your sorrows in it, depending on what side of the fence you’re on), it’s worth taking a second to ask: do these findings really prove once and for all that the Christmas spirit lives in the inferior parietal lobule? Short answer: hard nope.

Long answer: while the study brings some evidence in support of this hypothesis, there are several other things that need to be investigated. For one, were there any other differences between the two groups that might’ve led to these results? (Researchers only asked them about their Christmas habits.) Would the same pattern of activation be observed if the participants had viewed other, non-Christmas images that made them feel joyful and nostalgic? Does this work for other holidays (e.g., Diwali or Easter)? The results should also be replicated in a larger group of people. And finally, neuroscientists are still debating whether trying to localize complex emotions in specific parts of the brain even makes sense in the first place, so the answer throw this study in a new light. But that’s a whole other rabbit hole and we’ve definitely not had enough mulled wine for that just yet.

What did you think about this post? Let us know in the comments below.

And as always, don’t forget to follow us on InstagramTwitter or Facebook to stay up-to-date with our most recent posts.

Source

https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6266

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