The holidays can be a merry time… or not. For teens who have suffered a loss this year – whether it is a death, divorce, parent losing a job, or other significant change – the holidays can actually heighten those feelings of sadness, perhaps because we feel we are “supposed” to be happy at this time, but we’re not. Suicide rates actually increase every year during the winter months, and although some think it is because of the cold and decreased sunlight, others wonder if it might be related to suffering through everyone else’s joyous holiday.
So, the question becomes “is the sadness your teen experiencing just a feeling during a difficult time or has it tipped into depression?” Depression is a medical condition affecting someone’s moods or emotions. About 1 in 5 teens suffers with depression. The trouble is that depression can be hard to recognize.
Feeling sad or discouraged are natural human emotions that are normal reactions to frustrations and challenges of life. Arguments with loved ones, not making a team, a friend moving away, or not doing well in school are legitimate reasons for being down in the dumps. Everyone feels this way sometimes, but with a little time we can get past these feelings. Depression involves sadness or hopelessness that lasts for weeks and may not have a defined cause. It drains a person’s energy level, motivation, concentration, and ability to enjoy life. Because self-critical thinking is part of depression, some people might not realize they are depressed and, instead, think they are simply lazy, a bad student, a quitter, or a failure. Depression can also cause a person to spiral into other problems as well, such as cutting or eating disorders. Many times, if the depression is treated, these other problems can be addressed.
Depression isn’t always recognized by others either. A parent may not realize their teen is depressed. They might, unknowingly, make the disease worse by criticizing their child. They may call their teen lazy when they observe their low energy or say they have a bad attitude when they are moody. Parents should be aware that depression can show itself in many different ways such as anxiety, anger, withdrawal, low-energy, memory loss, change in eating habits and weight, change in sleep patterns, feeling worthless, and no motivation.
When teen depression goes untreated, the outcome may be serious, and result in poor performance at school, troubled relationships, increased rates of substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, increased rates of physical illness, and general decreased enjoyment of life. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide, one of the leading causes of death for teens in the United States.
Depression does NOT just go away on its own, and someone cannot just “shake it off.” Your child MUST see a doctor and/or therapist.
However, there are natural stress relievers that anyone can use to help reduce sad feelings, anger or just stress in general. If your child is depressed, you can share these ideas with them, in addition to getting help from a doctor or therapist. Not all of these stress relievers will work for everybody – the idea is to expose your teen to these coping skills and have them try them out and see which ones work. Having a few coping skills in your back pocket to pull out when needed will serve your child well into adulthood.
- Exercise. It releases tension and energizes. This can mean taking a walk, working out, dancing, bike riding around the neighborhood, jogging, or even shooting hoops in the driveway. People who are depressed may not feel much like being active, but make yourself do it anyway (ask a friend or parent to exercise with you if you need to be motivated). It takes very little exercise to notice a difference in your mood.
- Eat regular and nutritious meals. Depression can affect appetite, so you may not feel like eating or you may want to overeat, but both of these actions will make you feel worse. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and getting regular meals will absolutely improve your mood.
- Avoid excess caffeine intake which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation.
- Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
- Get enough sleep.
- Be creative. Everyone needs a break from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, dancing, drawing, writing in a journal, playing a musical instrument, taking a long bath, reading a good book, taking a walk, or spending time with a pet can reduce stress.
- Learn relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing, muscle relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, etc.). Breathing exercises are a great way to relieve stress anytime and anywhere. They’re simple to learn, simple to use, and can be done on the spot when you feel tension, immediately helping you to feel better.
- Role play. Rehearse and practice situations which cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious.
- Develop organizational skills, such as time management and the ability to break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks.
- Listen to music during your regular activities. Music has proven health and stress relief benefits, and can be easily played during daily life to relieve stress.
- Get your feelings out. Having a safe person or caring friend to vent your frustrations to is a great way to release your feelings. Journaling is also effective for identifying and releasing negative thoughts.
- Develop a positive attitude. Optimists and positive thinkers experience better health, less stress, and more ‘luck’ in life. Decrease negative self talk by challenging negative thoughts about yourself with more positive, or at least neutral, thoughts. Make an effort to notice some good things in life. While it takes a little practice to develop a more positive frame of mind, the practice takes little extra time and can really change your whole experience of life and how you live it.
Again, the list above are natural stress relievers than anyone can employ to improve their mood. However, these actions will NOT cure depression. A depressed person must see a doctor or therapist.