It’s like clockwork.
Every holiday season, while millions of Americans get giddy about the holiday season and all its gifting and caroling and ho-ho-ho-ing, millions of others are experiencing a different set of emotions.
The days are shorter. The nights are longer. Winter sets in. Dropping temps keep us indoors. And for some, the idea of celebrating with loved ones doesn’t prompt the same warm, fuzzy feelings it does others (all family jokes aside).
There’s a name for the sort of general depression that sets in for some in the winter months. It’s called seasonal affective disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you’re like most people with seasonal affective disorder, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, seasonal affective disorder causes depression in the spring or early summer.”
This combined with the added stress that can come with the holidays, can be a bigger problem for people than you might think, especially in a culture where, while strides have been made in acceptance of mental illness, a stigma still exists.
Meg Stump, a psychologist with Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, said some of the answers are a matter of simple chemistry. When winter days bring less sunlight, the body produces less seratonin and more melatonin.
“Melatonin is a hormone that our brains produce during the hours of darkness,” the Mayo Clinic says. “It is involved with regulation of sleep, body temperature and release of hormones. As with any hormone, the amount produced is important. People with seasonal affective disorder produce too much melatonin. This disrupts our internal body clock leading to depressive symptoms.”
During the holidays, a lot of pressures can hit a person at one.
For some, the expectations that come with the holidays can be tough. Expectations to provide a good Christmas for kids, to cook a meal good enough to impress guests, to spend time with friends and family — it can get to be a lot, especially for people struggling with SAD or worse, clinical depression.
“People who have a history of depression will be worse, people who have moods more subject to change, they’ll be worse,” Stump said. “A person can get themselves in a position where they feel stuck.”
To combat SAD, or depression in general, Stump recommends starting with a family doctor or regular primary care physician. From there, if a doctor thinks you need additional help, she or he can refer you to a mental health professional.
In addition, Stump has some recommendations as well.
- Get outside, even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes per day. Even if it’s cold, getting outside can have great impact on mood, Stump said.
- Stay social. Even if it’s beyond your comfort level, doing things to engage other people can help. Accept other people’s invitations to attend holiday functions, and maybe even seek out company.
- Step back from holiday expectations.
- Do something nice for someone. You’d be surprised how good it can feel to spend a day volunteering at the local food shelf, committing a random act of kindness, or doing something special for someone who might be expecting it can feel.
- Stabilize sleep patterns. Getting enough sleep can have a dramatic impact on mood.
- Light box therapy. As more research is done, Stump said, light boxes are proving themselves to be quite useful in helping people beat down the negative effects of SAD.