Are You Stressed or Depressed?

"The holidays," says Dr. Steven Berglas, a psychiatrist, executive coach, consultant and author, "are depressing."

I called Berglas to talk about holiday stress because, after all, ’tis the season, and because our cover story, "A Season on the Brink" (Page 62) by Senior Writer Meridith Levinson, focuses on the stress department stores have been under as they’ve tried (and, for the past few years, failed) to meet the holiday-season profit goals upon which their whole year’s success depends.

But Berglas asserted that stress is a misnomer for what we experience over the holidays.

"It’s not about stress," he told me. "Some New York Times writer once called it holiday stress, and we’ve been running around talking about stress ever since. The truth is, we’re not stressed; we’re depressed. And for good reason. It’s a depressing season." (Berglas makes his CIO debut on Page 42 with "Serenity Found," a column about the difference between burnout and stress.)

Some of the reasons Berglas ticked off for why the holiday season is particularly depressing include the winter’s failing light ("Every culture celebrates the winter solstice by lighting lights. Why? Because darkness is depressing."); the cold ("In the cold you hunch your shoulders. That causes you to contract your trapezius muscles. That gives you a pain in the neck."); advertising ("It tells you you should be happy—going around singing ‘Jingle Bells’—but you’re not, so you wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’"); and the grief that comes with end-of-year introspection ("Another year gone and I’m not where I want to be. Why aren’t I doing better?").

Of course, not every reason why the holidays are hard for many of us is internal or can be ascribed to seasonal affective disorder. This is the time of year when many businesses have to make their nut. Not just in retail (although that’s the most obvious example) but in all enterprises whose fiscal year syncs up with the calendar.

Our cover story reports on how two large department stores are using IT to reverse the depressing trend of falling holiday sales, but technology can do only so much for us as individuals. In fact, thanks to laptops, PDAs and their ilk, IT is making it easier for us to take our work with us on vacation. Some vacation.

So what is Dr. Berglas’s prescription for fighting holiday depression?

If we get depressed in part because our expectations are high, lower them. "Let’s admit that it’s a depressing time," says Berglas. "Let’s forget Hallmark and tell the truth."

And, to avoid hunching your shoulders and giving yourself a pain in the neck, remember Mom’s advice: Don’t forget your scarf.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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