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Blue and Broke for the Holidays

Economic woes ratchet up mental health problems already more common this time of year

MONDAY, Dec. 22 (HealthDay News) --Sagging spirits, sagging economy.

That's the holidays this year, with many people both blue and broke -- the usual melancholy compounded by the highest jobless rate in three decades and a jackknifing stock market.

"Mental health problems are common and spike more often during the winter months not only because of the holidays, but also because of seasonal affective disorder," said Dr. Timothy Fong, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. "This year, more than anything else, financial stressors are bringing that out."

Add to that a hefty dose of "spending guilt" among those who can't afford to buy the usual full stockings of holiday gifts and those who are spending but feeling bad about it.

"People talk about feeling guilty about spending," said Jerry Gold, administrative director of behavioral health services at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. "Financial stress is one of the top 10 factors for relationship problems anyway. If people tend to spend more than they bring in and have guilt about it, coupled with the fact that there's a global financial crisis and also the holiday times in which people are pressured to purchase gifts as an expression of caring or love, all that together probably exacerbates underlying stress about finances."

Over the past three to four months, Fong said, he has been seeing more patients with stress, depression and anxiety, people who normally would not have sought out treatment. Others who once paid cash for counseling just can't afford to pay anymore, especially with going rates in the Los Angeles area ranging from $125 to $400 and up.

And insurers are tightening up regulations. One patient who spent four days in the hospital recently detoxing from prescription drugs found himself with an unanticipated $8,000 bill for the stay. "His holidays are ruined," Fong said.

Companies still in business are devising their own strategies. According to Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares, a volunteer-oriented charitable organization in New York City, the number of corporate holiday parties is down, with companies organizing their employees to volunteer instead.

"I wouldn't say [volunteering for the holidays] is unheard of in the past, but this year, we're also having folks say they're volunteering instead of the holiday party and making it very clear it would have been a holiday party but, considering the times, it doesn't feel right to be throwing a party," Bagley said.

That, of course, is for people who have jobs. But whether you have a job, a half-job or no job, there are ways to survive the holidays, both mentally and financially:

  • Maintain your mental health. It's as important as your physical health, Fong said. Make sure you get seven hours of sleep a night, exercise, eat three square meals a day, avoid junk food and limit yourself to two alcoholic drinks a night if you're a man, one if you're a woman. Avoid pot, heroin, cocaine and mama's pills.
  • Combine social activities with exercise. Become part of a running club or hiking club, for instance. Many such clubs and activities don't cost much, if anything.
  • Hand-make gifts or give the gift of your time (inexpensive yet priceless). "Objects or gifts don't necessarily equate to happiness," Gold said. "This is a good time to talk about what people mean to you and then make a gift, make a card. … Make coupons to a parent or a sibling or a grandparent: 'I'll spend an hour of time with you playing ball or taking a walk.' "
  • Volunteer. "Volunteering is the longest sustained happy buzz you can give yourself," Bagley said.
  • Get together with a group of friends and shop for people in need rather than each other, Bagley suggested.

"It's really a good time for people to evaluate their relationship to money and, if you're in a family situation, to talk about that with your kids," Gold said.

And sometimes a little guilt isn't such a bad thing. "It's the reality," Gold said. "People have less money, and it's probably good to feel a little guilty. It prevents you from spending more."

More information

For more ways to cope with holiday stress, check out information from a guide provided by Mental Health America.

Relieving Stress Needn't Take Time

De-stressing needn't take lots of time. Harvard Medical School's "Portable Guide to Stress Relief" suggests one- and two-minute techniques:

  • If you have one minute: While sitting comfortably, take a few slow, deep breaths and quietly repeat to yourself, "I am," as you breathe in, and "at peace," as you breathe out. Repeat slowly two or three times. Then feel your entire body relax into the support of the chair.
  • If you have two minutes: Count down slowly from 10 to zero, and with each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply saying, "10," to yourself; breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say, "nine," and so on. If you feel lightheaded, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, repeat the exercise.

SOURCES: Timothy Fong, M.D., professor of psychiatry, director, UCLA Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, and co-director, UCLA Gambling Studies Program, University of California, Los Angeles; Jerry Gold, Ph.D., M.B.A., administrative director, Behavioral Health Services, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego; Gary Bagley, executive director, New York Cares, New York City; Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, Boston

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