While many people look forward to the holiday season each year, some individuals find themselves dreading it. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures grow colder, the risk of developing seasonal depression becomes higher.
Understanding what seasonal depression is can make all the difference for a person’s mental health during the holiday season. Continue reading to learn about seasonal depression symptoms, treatments, and how to help someone who may be struggling.
What is Seasonal Depression/ Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of major depressive order with seasonal patterns. This means it typically affects people during the fall and winter months. During this time, the days become shorter, resulting in less sunlight and colder temperatures.
Most people experience seasonal depression or SAD symptoms when fall starts, and often get worse in the late fall throughout winter. While symptoms will eventually ease up as spring approaches, these symptoms tend to cause issues during the holiday season.
It’s not rare for people to feel “down” or have a poor sense of mental health during the holiday season. Still, it becomes a problem when individuals begin to experience more severe symptoms that will inevitably affect their daily lives.
Similar to other mental health disorders, this type of depression is more common than you may think and some individuals can become more at risk of developing it.
For the most part, young adults and women are more susceptible to experiencing seasonal depression symptoms. However, there are a variety of other factors that may put an individual at higher risk.
- If you have other mood disorders such as major depressive disorder or bipolar (type I or type II).
- If you have a relative who has been diagnosed with SAD, or other mental health disorders such as major depressive disorder or schizophrenia.
- If you live at latitudes either far north or far south from the equator. These areas are exposed to less sunlight during the winter.
- If you live in a cloudy region.
The cause of seasonal depression, or SAD, is not exactly known. While researchers believe the premise of the disorder is a result of the changing of seasons, there are also other causes that they have found can play a role in triggering the condition.
The most common theories professionals have linked to poor mental health during the holiday season are as follows:
- Biological clock change. An individual’s biological or internal clock is what regulates their moods, sleep patterns, and behavioral habits. When there’s less sunlight, it prompts a person’s circadian rhythms to shift. If someone has trouble adjusting to the changes in daylight, the shift can cause an individual to feel out of step with their daily routines.
- Chemical imbalance in the brain. Everyone has chemicals in their brains that work as communicators between nerves. One of these chemicals is known as serotonin which controls emotions like happiness and joy. Sunlight helps regulate serotonin, which means if a person already has less serotonin activity, their levels will fall further if they are exposed to darker days and less sunlight. Which is why it’s important to expose oneself to any available sunlight.
- Vitamin D deficiency. Another factor that contributes to serotonin levels is Vitamin D. Unfortunately, sunlight helps produce Vitamin D, which is why people tend to experience Vitamin D deficiencies during the colder months. This deficiency can affect someone’s mood and/or serotonin levels.
- Melatonin boost. A lack of sunlight may also stimulate an overproduction of melatonin, which is another chemical that affects a person’s mood and sleeping patterns. Because of this overproduction, people can come to feel sluggish or exhausted during the winter.
Seasonal depression, or SAD, is classified as a type of major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns. Because of this, the symptoms mirror those of other depressive disorders. Some of the most common mood changes and seasonal depression symptoms to look out for include:
- Sadness and/or feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day.
- Experiencing high levels of anxiety.
- Craving carbohydrates and weight gain.
- Feeling extreme exhaustion, fatigue, and lack of energy.
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
- Having trouble concentrating.
- Feeling agitated or irritable.
- Limbs (arms and legs) feeling heavy or weighed down.
- Losing interest in activities that once resulted in enjoyment, including a withdrawal from social situations.
- Experiencing sleeping issues, usually sleeping too much.
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
NOTE: If anyone is having suicidal thoughts, they should get help immediately. Contact the suicide hotline for assistance, or call Malvern Behavioral Health (610-480-8919). We have staff available 24/7 to assist someone feeling depressed or having unsafe thoughts.
Seasonal Depression Treatment
Suffering from poor mental health during the holiday season doesn’t only affect one individual, it often affects everyone around them. This is why it’s important for family members and friends to understand how to help someone with seasonal depression throughout this time.
As we stated above, SAD is a type of major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns. Therefore, the following treatments are similar to those that mental health professionals may use for someone who is diagnosed with clinical depression.
This type of therapy uses a special lamp to simulate sunlight. The lamp used will have white fluorescent light tubes that are covered with a plastic screen to block ultraviolet rays. The intensity of light emitted should be 10,000 lux, which is about 20 times brighter than the average indoor light.
Many mental health professionals recommend patients use light therapy for about 15-30 minutes every morning throughout the winter months. However, it’s important to note that some individuals should avoid light therapy including those with diabetes or retinopathies, those on certain medications, or those with bipolar disorders.
Remember to always seek help and guidance from a mental health professional before attempting any kind of treatment.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
One of the most popular forms of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps individuals manage mental health disorders and emotional concerns. CBT is a goal-oriented therapy and is known to have long-lasting results.
With the help of a mental health professional, a person in CBT can come to understand how their thoughts affect their actions. Oftentimes, individuals can learn to adopt healthier thinking patterns and habits while coping with negative thoughts.
CBT usually takes place over a limited number of sessions, however, a mental health professional will be able to customize the treatment based on the individual’s specific needs and issues.
There are certain situations where a mental health professional will recommend certain medications in addition to therapy such as CBT or light therapy. Some of the more common medications that have been used to treat seasonal depression include:
- Fluoxetine (Prozac®)
- Escitalopram (Lexapro®)
- Paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva®)
- Sertraline (Zoloft®)
- Citalopram (Celexa®)
NOTE: It’s imperative that no person should use any of the medications listed above without the permission of mental health professional. All of these medications require prescriptions and could have various side effects. Make sure to contact your primary care doctor or a mental health professional for more information about anti-depressant medications.
As mentioned earlier in this blog, vitamin D deficiency can play a part in causing or encouraging seasonal depression symptoms. Taking vitamin D supplements can often help individuals if they are suffering from a deficiency.
However, if an individual’s symptoms are more severe, they will most likely need to participate in therapy as well as take these supplements. Again, it’s important for any individual to reach out to their doctor or a mental health professional before deciding to take vitamin D supplements.
Other Ways to Help Seasonal Depression
After an individual is diagnosed with seasonal depression, they will find that there are ways to be proactive in preventing poor mental health during the holiday season. In addition to the treatments listed above, consider trying some of these techniques:
- Get outside as much as possible.
- Keep a well-balanced diet.
- Stay in touch and visit with friends and family.
- Stay active and exercise regularly.
- Adopt a daily self-care routine.
- Communicate how you’re feeling with those around you.