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Physicians and the Holiday Season – Not Always a Joyful Time

The holiday season is here. Many of us are preparing our homes for guests, family, and friends. The season begins in November and continues through the first of the year. As physicians think about the holidays, they must consider their personal health and listen to their minds and bodies. The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration but for some doctors, it is anything but.

The holiday blues, which is also referred to as the “winter blues,” is a type of depression that occurs in about 14 percent of Americans, according to Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP.  Usually individuals that suffer from the winter blues have a propensity for depression throughout the year, although it is magnified during the holiday season. Doctors are saddled with the responsibilities of running practices, saving lives, meeting expectations of patient satisfaction and governmental compliance issues, and breaking even financially. Physicians are already feeling the anxiety of not spending enough time with their families and friends and admit they have a poor work/life balance, which leads to “burnout.” When doctors do not address anxiety and mental issues, the probability is that when treating patients, the quality and safety of the services provided can be compromised.

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Typically, when doctors go to medical school, they develop a belief that their job is to treat patients, but they as individuals are not to be treated. This philosophy runs deeply when it is pertaining to physical health however, it runs even deeper when it comes to mental health. Doctors keep their mental health struggles to themselves because being honest about this condition has what they perceive as many pitfalls. According to a study from, more than half of physicians reported believing that mental health is a taboo topic to discuss and two-thirds would not consider meeting with a mental health professional.

Darrell G. Kirch, MD, says in, Physician Mental Health: My Personal Journey and Professional Plea, “The simple reality is that becoming a physician in no way removes one’s shared human vulnerability to mental disorders.” Doctors are people too.

Physicians should pay attention to these signs of depression, especially as we enter the holiday season.

Changes in appetite or weight

Changes in sleep patterns

Irritable mood

Feeling of worthlessness or guilt

Feeling more tired than usual

In many cases, holiday depression can be treated with lifestyle changes and the support of those closest to them. Physicians should take the advice that they give to their patients:

Exercise. Research studies have shown that as little at 20 minutes per day of activity can alleviate symptoms of depression.

Eat a healthy diet and maintain regular sleep patterns.

Don’t give in to holiday pressures. You don’t have to accept every invitation to holiday parties. Set aside time for yourself.

Drink only in moderation. As you have advised your patients, alcohol is a depressant. If one is feeling blue or is depressed, alcohol isn’t going to help.

Talk about your feelings to a significant other. Express the need for support. If you are away from your family or friends, stay connected by FaceTime or telephonic conversations.

Seek professional help. A prescription for antidepressants may be warranted, along with therapy. Ongoing therapy can help doctors with managing stress, communication and relationships.

Depression amongst physicians is not a new occurrence. Every doctor is vulnerable to mental illness just like any other physical problem. It has been something doctors have kept secret, fearing retribution and fear of reputation assassination. More doctors, however, are now speaking out about their struggles and are offering themselves as support for those who need it. Additionally, the National Academy of Medicine has created an action collaborative on clinician well-being and produced a study on how healthcare organizations can take a systems approach to promote well-being.

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Gwen Spence is Assistant Vice President, Membership Services, for CAP. Questions or comments related to this article should be directed to