The holidays are supposed to be a time of merriness and good cheer. But for many people, the holidays usher in feelings of stress, anxiety and even depression. Because the holiday season overlaps the darker, gloomier fall and winter months, if you’re feeling down, it can be tough to tell whether you simply have a case of the holiday blues or are suffering from a more serious seasonal affliction like seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
What Are the Holiday Blues?
Holiday depression often begins to affect people as early as Thanksgiving and can last well past New Year’s Day. It’s important to note that people suffering from seasonal affective disorder may feel a worsening of symptoms like depression and anxiety throughout this period, as well. The holiday blues are a common occurrence because holidays can often stir up painful thoughts or memories of deceased loved ones, failed relationships or strained family relationships.
Holiday depression can be worsened through our lifestyle choices, as well. People tend to overeat and binge on alcohol through the holidays, which affects the mind more than many realize. Eating a larger quantity of unhealthy foods means we’re not getting the vitamins and other nutrients we need to support mental and physical health. A combination of unhealthy foods and too much alcohol can lead to poor self-esteem and more frequent depressive thoughts.
Combating Holiday Depression
If you feel you’re suffering from holiday-related depression or anxiety, there are a number of ways to alleviate or even eliminate your negative mood:
Try Something New
If you experience holiday depression every year, it may be helpful to create a new tradition. Try visiting different relatives or take a tropical vacation. Even a short weekend trip may be enough to chase away the blues.
Do Away With Traditions You Find Stressful
If you don’t like sending out greeting cards, you can stop sending them or you can send out eCards on the internet. Similarly, you shouldn’t feel obligated to host the holiday dinners if you really aren’t feeling up to it. Explain that you dislike it and suggest rotating the responsibility among multiple households. Look for more things you can change that will help you enjoy the holidays more.
The holidays can be a great time to get involved with charity work. Consider volunteering with organizations that feed the homeless or collect toys for disadvantaged children. Giving back to your community can help take the focus off of your own feelings of depression.
Get Away for a Few Hours
Finally, simply taking a walk can be a great way to defeat depression, regardless of the cause. Simply spending time outdoors will give you a chance to breathe in the fresh air and clear your thoughts. It might even give you new ideas for making your holidays more enjoyable.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
In comparing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to holiday depression, the most distinguishing feature is that SAD lasts significantly longer. While holiday depression usually affects people during the several weeks surrounding the holidays, SAD actually lasts through much of the fall and winter. Seasonal affective disorder often begins to affect people when we turn our clocks back in accordance with the daylight savings tradition. The decreased amount of daylight affects mood and can cause people to feel depressed or anxious.
While SAD can affect anyone, it’s most common in the northern and eastern states, where the days are especially short and the weather is dreary. Women are up to four times more likely to develop the condition than men and it’s more prevalent in adults between the ages of 20 and 40. As adults reach middle age, they tend to experience SAD less frequently.
Research on the human body’s biological clock, or circadian rhythm, has indicated that there’s a biochemical reason that SAD is so common. The brain releases specific hormones to regulate sleep and wakefulness. When we’re exposed to a dark environment, such as when the sun sets early, the brain releases melatonin. The production of this hormone is increased in the evenings, because it works to make us sleepy. As the sun rises in the morning, the brain reduces the amount of melatonin, so it will be easier for us to awaken. Shorter days upset this cycle, which can leave us feeling tired, unsettled or even depressed.
How Can SAD Be Treated?
If you feel you might be suffering from something more than just the holiday blues, there are a number of successful methods you can employ to start to turn things around:
There are a few ways that light therapy can be used to give your circadian rhythm a necessary jolt. One method is to open up the shades or blinds, so you’ll be suddenly exposed to a burst of daylight. This can often be enough to help you feel awake, alert and productive. You should also expose yourself to more natural light throughout the day. Take a walk in the middle of the afternoon, before the sun begins to set.
Additionally, look for ways to bring more sunlight into the home. You can do this by opening the inner door to your home or by drawing back the shades and blinds on each window. If you don’t have many windows or the daylight isn’t coming into the home, try setting up various mirrors throughout your home. The mirrors will reflect the daylight and increase the amount of light in your home.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can also be helpful, because it forces people to give conscious thought to their emotions. When you begin feeling a depressive episode coming on, question the feeling to determine exactly why you’re feeling depressed. Once you understand what’s causing the depression, you can re-frame the issue in your mind. By altering your mindset, you can minimize the effect the depression has on you.
Finally, lifestyle changes are especially helpful in minimizing the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Most people suffering from SAD will hibernate in their homes, only venturing out for work and other mandatory obligations. This type of isolation can actually worsen the symptoms of the condition. Instead, schedule more activities throughout the winter months and consider increasing the amount of physical activity you pursue. Keeping active will have positive mental and physical health benefits, while also giving you an opportunity to reduce stress.
Holiday depression and seasonal affective disorder are two separate conditions, but that doesn’t mean an individual can’t experience both. This is why taking care of your mental health is especially important through the winter months. Engaging in relaxation exercises and taking up new activities can help you feel less stressed through the holidays and throughout the year.