12/02/2007 06:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ho Ho Ho, Or Not

Three weeks ago I watched as they hung the huge crystal decoration at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan while hundreds of pre-holiday shoppers crushed the sidewalks. All over the country newspapers are loaded with special sales, flush with inserts on holiday concerts, tree-lighting ceremonies and performances of every type. Stores feature Santas, tree lights, decorations and the relentless loops of Christmas carols.

Every year we face the assault of the Hallmark card-perfect families cuddled by a roaring fire (surrounded by piles of gifts), smiling, singing, even dancing. But for approximately two million of us, the season isn't fun at all. In fact, it's damn depressing. I don't mean we are troubled by the cost of the holidays, the relentless commercialization, the credit card balance and the pressure to be happy. I mean, many people get downright depressed, and it's serious.

For years I suffered from serious holiday depression while my wife and family struggled to bring Christmas cheer, gather the gifts and decorate the house. I wanted to hide. I struggled to understand my irrational sadness, for I was certainly the beneficiary of great love and abundance. I was a holiday imposter, pretending to celebrate and not wanting to spoil anyone else's season, but I was a dark cloud.

I had to surface and let go of some old beliefs, try on some new behavior and over time I have, at least, become a more enthusiastic holiday participant. Each year we need to be reminded that holidays mean loss (in the belief in Santa, of the innocence of the holiday), change (in our enthusiasm for the work involved in "creating" the experience of Christmas) and simply less "juice" in the newness of gifts or celebration.

A religious holiday, be it Christmas or Chanukah, is a time marker that can set off a chain of feelings that run the gamut from warm fuzzy memories of your first train set or beloved Barbie Doll.. whatever sparks the memories...holidays smells, lights, pictures, all reminds us of the passage of time.

Holiday depression, which affects more than two million men and women, can have an impact on the way you eat and sleep, the way you feel about yourself, and the way you think about your life. Some of the causes include increased stress, fatigue, loneliness, unrealistic expectations, too much commercialization, and not being able to be with one's family. Confronting seasonal depression isn't easy, especially for those of us who are usually positive and upbeat the rest of the year.
The Mayo Clinic confirms that holiday stress and depression are often the result of three main trigger points. Understanding these trigger points can help you plan ahead on how to accommodate them.

* Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time. But tensions are often heightened during the holidays.

* Finances. Like your relationships, your financial situation can cause stress at any time of the year. But overspending during the holidays on gifts, travel, food and entertainment can increase stress as you try to make ends meet while ensuring that everyone on your gift list is happy.

* Physical demands. The strain of shopping, decorating, wrapping, mailing, attending school or church program, baking...whew! Get enough rest.

Some tips to prevent holiday stress and depression:

When stress is at its peak, it's hard to stop and regroup. So it's best to prevent stress and head off depression in the first place, especially if you know the holidays have taken an emotional toll in previous years.

Acknowledge your feelings.You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.

Seek support. If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, or community, religious or social services. You don't have to go it alone. Don't be a martyr.

Be realistic. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Hold on to those you can and want to. But accept that you may have to let go of others.

Set differences aside. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Practice forgiveness.

Stick to a budget. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items. Then be sure to stick to your budget.

Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities.

Learn to say no. Believe it or not, people will understand if you can't do certain projects or activities. If you say yes only to what you really want to do, you'll avoid feeling resentful, bitter and overwhelmed.

Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a dietary free-for-all. Some indulgence is OK, but overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt.

Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do.