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The Christmas paradox: depression in a time of joy and how exercise can help.

The Christmas paradox: depression in a time of joy and how exercise can help.

The Christmas paradox: on one hand Christmas can be a time of year people look forward to taking the time to relax, unwind, travel, spend time with their loved ones and give thanks for the year that’s passed. On the other hand, Christmas can be a stressful time of year for many people, fostering feelings of depression and anxiety around family tension, loneliness, financial pressure or loss.

From a purely neurobiological perspective, life stressors such as these lead to an increased production of stress hormones such as cortisol, and reduced neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These kind of changes can result in feeling down, emotional, vulnerable or worried. They are, in fact, the changes that occur when a person is clinically depressed, but it is also possible for these physiological alterations to be transitory when we are under stress.

So how can we take of ourselves if we know that the holiday season may not be the joyful celebration it is for others?


To someone going through a hard time, this can sound too simplistic, or potentially too challenging. However, a clinical trial published in the Journal of Psychophysiology in 2014 showed that the affective (mood) symptoms of depression are improved by exercise. Another study by Dr Blumenthal and colleagues comparing the effects of a common antidepressant, sertraline (Zoloft), with exercise, found that after 4 months exercise was as effective in reducing depressive symptoms as Zoloft. What’s more, a follow up with the subjects in the study 6 months later found that those who continued to exercise after the study were 30% less likely to relapse into depression than those on medication. So if exercise can make this much of an impact to people with major depression, it’s clear it can change the mood of someone without clinical depression who is feeling stressed or down.

Why is exercise so effective?

It is thought that exercise has the capacity to promote endorphin release. Endorphins can block the transmission of pain signals as well as produce a euphoric feeling commonly referred to as the “runner’s high”. Research has shown that in order for exercise to stimulate endorphin release, the body has to be in an anaerobic state, so exercise that involves short intense bursts, like sprinting, or lifting heavy weights is required.

In addition, exercise improves dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin signalling. These are our neurotransmitters that play a role in our feelings of happiness, content and motivation, which are often disrupted in depression.

Last, but certainly not least, there are psychological benefits of systematic exercise that simply cannot be put into a pill. Positive self-regard and self-confidence, as well as a sense of personal mastery were benefits that the researchers in Dr Blumenthal’s study found significant in attenuating the symptoms of depression for the subjects in the exercise group.

Think about it in another context – if you wanted to build a house, how much more proud would you be if when it was finished you could stand back and say, “I built this on my own with my bare hands”, than if you said, “someone built it for me”. The sense of these people having been involved in their own recovery could not be underestimated.

This is what makes exercise so powerful for everybody, not just people suffering with clinical depression. Like a muscle that is worked and through working gets stronger, our sense of self and perceived capability are tested with exercise. Over time we begin to gain empowerment and self-confidence that stem from physically getting stronger, fitter and healthier, no matter how quickly or slowly.

So if Christmas is a notoriously stressful time of year for you, now is the time to get your runners on and head outside or to the gym. If you know someone struggling, please share this article with them. Better yet, offer to exercise together. You never know what impact you might have.

Jasmine is a Naturopath at Empowered Health who specialises in treating female hormonal compaints such as PCOS, PMS and period pain. Jasmine’s focus is teaching you how to sustain long-term meaningful change to your well-being in order to be the healthiest version of you. To book an appointment, or to chat to Jasmine in a free 10 minute phone briefing about how she may be able to help, please call us on 1300 21 44 25.

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