Do you feel down during the holidays? You’re not alone. This is actually incredibly common during the winter months. Coupled with added stress, this can make the holidays, for some, something to dread. Tunde outlines some possible treatment options for the “holiday blues.” You might be surprised how easy these are to implement.
The Holiday Season and Depression
By: Tunde Aideyan, BA
The holiday season is an extraordinary time of the year. Many people are able to connect with family members that they haven’t seen in many months, or even years. The actual holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, and others, are often miraculous for many families. They typically consist of good food, good times, and the exchange of gifts. The workplace can also be somewhat tranquil during this time of year. It is not uncommon to see some individuals take vacation time for up to four weeks in a row. The holiday season is a remarkable time of the year.
However, for some it is not quite miraculous. The onset of the holiday season, along with cold weather, can be troublesome for many people. It is an extraordinary time of the year indeed, and potentially extraordinarily stressful for you or someone you know.
These stressors can come from a variety of directions. The holidays correspond with gift buying, giving, and receiving. Simple consumer sales data shows us that there is a significant uptick in revenue for retail companies during the holidays. Do you have the funds to purchase gifts for all of your family and friends? Accomplishing this task can be unrealistic for some. What about work? For some the holidays coincide with vacation time. For others, it could be more work. Perhaps you work at Macy’s or another large retailer, and your hours have increased significantly during the holiday season. Perhaps you own a small business and are beginning to assess end of year sales goals. Did you meet them?
Family is source of comfort for many during the holidays, and a source of discomfort for many others as well. Perhaps you have what some people call a “dysfunctional family.” If so, does the holiday season bring joy and comfort, or stress and anxiety? Or maybe this is the first holiday season you are experiencing without a close family member who recently passed away. Family experiences can bring pain just as easily as they can bring pleasure.
The simple truth is that the holiday season can be an incredibly stressful time of year, that generates undesirable experiences, which can lead to sadness and depression. If you are experiencing a marked increase in depressive symptoms during the holidays or winter months, then you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In terms of mental health, SAD is essentially major depressive disorder (MDD) with a seasonal modifier; that is the symptoms of MDD appear during a specific season. The most common type is SAD-winter type.
The symptoms of SAD coincide with what we see in other depressive disorders. These include but are not limited to the following; depressed mood, diminished interest or pleasure in activities, insomnia and/or hypersomnia, loss of energy, and diminished ability to think.
As it relates to mental health, SAD is typically associated with the onset of the winter months, and reduced daylight during those months. In fact, the prevalence of SAD in the population grows as you progress up north, where it is colder and there is less daylight. For example, the prevalence in Florida during the winter months is about 1%, while nearly 10% of the population of Alaskans may suffer from SAD.
Research has shown that there is a strong association between the onset of SAD during the winter months, and decreased exposure to light. A general hypothesis of this phenomena suggests that SAD is triggered by a disturbance in one’s circadian rhythm, which is affected by light exposure. Basically, the biological clock is out of phase during the winter months, which can induce several behavioral reactions that culminate in depressive symptoms.
However, I would ascertain that a variety of factors contribute to the onset and severity of SAD. Most notably is the decreased light exposure. But what about the stressors mentioned earlier? These include tough family situations, more work, and significant financial constraints. It could be that SAD is propagated by decreased light exposure, and the onset of the winter cold, but additional stressors can exacerbate the condition. If you are already susceptible to the changing weather and light patterns, combined with additional holiday season specific stressors, this time of year can be particularly tough for you or someone you know.
So what does the research say about treatment? How does one overcome SAD? The most
common form of treatment is light therapy. It is rather simple; an individual with SAD exposes themselves to more light throughout the day. This can be getting in the sun sooner, such as when daylight breaks. It is imperative to experience as much natural light as possible throughout the day. Light therapy can also be administered artificially. A light box may be used in light therapy, which emits much more visible light than a common light bulb. It is meant to simulate natural light. Medication is also a possible treatment option, such as the anti-depressants used for MDD treatment. Additionally, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective as well for treating SAD.
One does not have to undergo the entire gambit of depression treatment options in order to combat SAD. There are a variety of behavioral changes you can implement to manage the onset of depressive symptoms during the winter months. The simplest method is to expose yourself to more light. The research is very significant indicating an association between SAD and light exposure, and the research also significantly indicates improved outcomes for those experiencing SAD after undergoing light therapy. Basically, get out into the sun.
However, as it relates to the other stressors that may exacerbate SAD, it is imperative that individuals recognize how their thoughts and feelings affect their behaviors. For example, if you are stressed because of increased end of the year work obligations, you may not want to engage in activities that typically give you pleasure. Instead of going to the gym and playing some basketball, you may be impelled to just stay at home and watch television. By simply recognizing the stressors and thoughts that affect your behaviors, and adjusting your behaviors to combat those unhelpful thoughts and feelings, you can begin to improve the behavioral mechanisms that perpetuate depressive symptoms. Finally, preventive measures can be highly effective. These may include increased light exposure while it is still available, or recognizing the patterns of depression that persist year over year. However, it must be noted that mental health consultation should be seriously considered for very severe cases of SAD.
SAD is perpetuated by seasonal changes, and consists of a variety of depressive symptoms. Additionally, many holiday season stressors can really worsen the onset of depressive symptoms. But it is not a permanent condemnation just because the weather changes. With perseverance, you can improve your mental health and holiday experiences. Just get out into the sun more.
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