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Last minute Christmas shoppers crowd Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto, Ont. Dec. 21/2011.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This time of year, it doesn't matter where you go. The holidays will find you.

Anyone who enters a mall in December can attest to the inescapable nature of holiday music, Christmas trees and endless strands of twinkling lights. For some, these perennial elements serve as Pavlovian conditioning, sparking an urgent need for hot chocolate, chestnut roasting and garland procuring. But for others, the holiday season means just the opposite: the stress of heightened expectations and reminders that life doesn't measure up to the idealized versions portrayed in the media.

Despite how common it is, holiday stress and depression is often misunderstood.

Holidays and suicide risk

The idea that suicides spike during the holiday season is a myth that won't go away.

The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center has been examining suicide statistics and the link to the holiday season since 2000. What they have discovered is that in the U.S., the months with the lowest number of suicides are November, December and January.

In a report released last year, the public policy centre also showed that spring and summer tend to have the highest number of suicides, meaning "it is difficult to understand how the holiday-suicide myth came about," according to a press release.

But that doesn't mean stress, anxiety and depression don't creep up during the holiday season.

Holiday blues

Big family dinners, costly presents, an endless list of tasks: Is it any wonder that some people feel overwhelmed, depressed, anxious or isolated? Although these feelings are far from uncommon, there isn't any extensive research looking into the origins, causes and other factors that relate to the so-called "holiday blues." But a survey from consulting group Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in 2006 demonstrated that it's a very real phenomenon. Nearly 40 per cent of survey respondents said that their stress levels increase during the holidays. Splitting the genders, 44 per cent of women reported higher stress levels linked to the holidays, compared with 31 per cent of men. The biggest sources of holiday-related stress were the feelings of a lack of time, not enough money and the commercialization of the holidays, according to the survey.

"There's no question there's increased stress around the holidays," said Dr. Michelle Marshall, a lecturer and psychiatrist at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto.

She notes that people who are already dealing with depression, anxiety, addiction and other mental illnesses can be particularly vulnerable at this time of year.

A problem we don't talk about

Here's the irony: The desire to have the "perfect" holiday could be the thing that prevents people from talking about the fact they're overcome with feelings of depression, loneliness or anxiety.

"Things are supposed to be really great for everybody and it's a time for celebration. If things aren't going well for you or you're finding that the stress is just a little bit too much, it's just harder to talk about it. … You're going against the grain. I think it's hard for people," said Dr. Heather Stuart, Bell Canada mental health and anti-stigma research chair at Queen's University in Kingston.

There are things people can do to help control the feelings of holiday blues, she said. One important step is to minimize the number of planned activities. Stuart notes that too many people try to pack way too much into the holidays and end up overdoing it on food, alcohol and lack of sleep. Managing expectations and realizing that holidays don't have to be absolutely perfect can also help keep things in check. And so is recognizing that, sometimes, you need help.

"People may experience crises over the Christmas break," Stuart said. Leaning on a support team of family, friends or local crisis support services can make an important difference.

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