The holidays are over. The parties are over. The pilgrimages to stores to return unwanted gifts are over.

Vacation came and went. Family reunions came and went. Bills keep coming.

Winter's still here, and it seems like an eternity until spring will breathe excitement and refreshment into the air.

That "blah" feeling just described is commonly referred to as the post-holiday blues.

"This is not an isolated or unusual reaction to the holidays," said Susan Jacobson, a licensed clinical social worker at the Columbia Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy.

"There is so much energy and focus expended on preparing for the holidays, and suddenly we are all faced with asking ourselves, 'Is that all there is?' " shesaid. "It's just like the child that finishes opening all his Christmas presents and asks, 'What else?' "

For adults, some of that carries over as a letdown and hesitancy about the future.

Anita Trainer, nurse manager at the psychiatric unit of the Howard County General Hospital, agreed that post-holiday depression is characterized by an uncertainty about the future, a feeling people have that they've been left hanging.

"It's a letdown," she said. "It's a kind of exciting tension people have focused on and then it's like, what do I do now?" she said.

Unfulfilled expectations often lead to winter blues, said Jeff Maszal, the hot line coordinator for the Howard County Grassroots Center.

"People are looking forward to getting together with their family and other people with the misconception that duringthe holiday time all of the family problems will disappear," he said.

People always want to believe that their parents will not argue,and they will not fight with their siblings because it is Christmas time, Maszal said.

"But in reality, their parents have been fighting for 45 years and they never got along with their younger brother and when they realize that things haven't changed they get depressed,"he said.

Depression can also manifest itself when people express disappointment with gifts.

"Gifts often don't show the giver knows what is distinctive about the recipient," Jacobson said. "I encouragepeople to buy themselves Christmas presents -- it's one way to be sure that you get something you want and to acknowledge ourself."

The disappointment people feel following the holiday season has a dramatic effect on the number of calls the Grassroots Center hot line receives, Maszal said. The service usually averages 55 to 60 calls each day but during January the number of calls increases to 70 to 80 per day. The number of calls remains high until March, he said.

Directly after the holidays also comes an increase in the intensity and the length of the calls, Maszal said. "There are longer-lasting calls andmore calls during the graveyard shift, after 12 a.m.," Maszal said. "Usually the calls taper off by 2:30, but after the holiday season the phone often continues to ring until 5 a.m."

Trainer agreed people exhibit a greater propensity toward depression following the holiday season. The hospital sees 20 percent more patients for depression in January than any other time of year.

Winter can be a depressing time of year, Maszal said. The weather has a large effect on people'smood and most people don't really start to perk up again until the spring, when the weather get warmer, he added.

January, February and March tend to be a time when people snuggle in and isolate themselves, Jacobson agreed.

People suffering from depression often exhibit a low energy level: They may wake up and feel unhappy facing the day, and they may either withdraw from or show a compulsion for companionship. They may also show an increased tendency to consume alcohol, Jacobson said.

Depression may also be expressed through changes inpeople's daily habits. People may show a change in eating or sleeping habits or they may cry for no apparent reason, Maszal said. Some people also tend to isolate themselves when they are depressed; this isenhanced by winter weather, he added.

"For most folks it is a transitional thing. They are just coming out of the holidays and the weather is a factor," Maszal said.

People tend to be more cooped up, often alone -- and lonely -- more.

The length of time the depression lasts is used to determine the severity of the problem. "The kind of blues we get after the holidays, we can pick ourselves up from," Jacobson said. "More serious depression lasts longer and may have physical symptoms."

Post-holiday blues are considered to be a form of transitional depression triggered by a transition from one time period to another. Often these winter blahs can be alleviated by re-engaging in work or other activities, experts said.

Taking on a new project now may help to alleviate the blues.

"Starting new things often makes people feel like the master of their destiny in a way that feels good," Jacobson said.

Maszal's advice: "For the general public, I would just tell them to be gentle with themselves and treat themselves to something nice."

The problem becomes the more serious clinical depression when an individual is unable to bolster himself or herself through traditional support systems, such as talking about problems to friends or exercising to relieve stress, Maszal explained.

Serious cases of depression call for professional help, Jacobson said.

"If people can't pull themselves out of it by finding a new project, then they may want to consult with a professional," she said.

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