Feeling blue this holiday season? You’re not alone — more than 10 million Americans are reportedly affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Families and friends gather for parties, Christmas dinners and celebrations, but not everyone feels merry and bright this time of year. Many relate more so with Elvis’ hit tune Blue Christmas than with Burl Ives’ Holly, Jolly Christmas.
Feelings of loneliness may be the most common trigger for the holiday blues, and those feelings are often intensified by the holiday parties and family gatherings.
“Much of our cultural celebration of the holidays is about fellowship and being together. For someone who is lonely, that really accentuates their loneliness,” says the Rev. Mike Stone, longtime pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church.
“Loneliness is not a matter of solitude. You can be lonely in a crowd,” Stone adds.
Circumstances that contribute to feeling lonely — the death of a loved one, a divorce or break-up — sting a little more during the holiday season, especially if it’s the first Christmas without that loved one.
“I see it not only worsening in its intensity, but also in its frequency (this time of year),” Stone observes. “I see more people, and for the ones that I see, there seems to be a heightened sense of loneliness.”
Most SAD cases don’t progress to levels of clinical depression. But, this time of year, Stone asks those he counsels if they’ve had thoughts of harming themselves more often than not.
“I’ve never charted it, but it seems like I ask it more in November and December than the rest of the year combined,” he says.
December - February are the most severe months for SAD, and fewer than 40 percent of those who need help seek it. The average age of those feeling the winter blues is 18-30 years old, but the ratio of women to men is 4:1.
The hecticness of the Christmas season can trigger winter blues in the happiest of people. With so much to do, people feel increasingly stressed and irritable — emotions that are just a step away from sadness.
“Holidays will stress us out,” says Dr. Jaymal Patel, certified psychiatrist and inpatient medical director for Memorial Satilla Health’s senior behavioral center. “We are doing too many things, not giving our body and brain a break and then wonder why our circadian rhythm (biological clock) is screwed up, why we are miserable.”
Aside from feeling lonely or down in the dumps, physical symptoms of the winter blues can include overeating, unexplained weight gain, sleeping more than usual, and in more chronic cases, depression.
Patel was the keynote speaker at Memorial Satilla Health’s seminar on how to deal with holiday depression last month, and he’s on a mission to raise awareness about what triggers SAD and how to combat its effects. A general understanding of what causes depression will mitigate the havoc it wreaks.
“Education and awareness is key to recovery,” he says.
There’s no need to freak out, Patel adds.
Sadness is a normal feeling, but it’s transient — unlike clinical depression which causes chaos in the brain, messes up biological functions like sleep and appetite, and wrecks emotional responses. He encourages those suffering from clinical depression symptoms to seek medical treatment.
Holiday blues, however, can be managed by recognizing what triggers the emotional response.
Patel gives an example of apple pie — the same apple pie can trigger at least three different emotional responses depending on a person’s memories of the sweet dessert. Some feel happy at the thought of mama’s homemade pie for Christmas dinner. But, when mom has passed, tasting the same apple pie triggers feelings of sadness rather than joy. For the person who once loved apple pie, and then had a traumatic choking experience, the pie triggers feelings of fear or panic.
“The same stimulants, but three different responses,” Patel says.
South Georgia residents don’t often experience extreme cold weather this time of year, but gray, overcast wintry days also contribute to SAD. Less sunshine means less of those “happy” neurochemicals flowing through the brain.
Nearly 50 percent of the population recognize the effect of weather on their mood, Patel says.
“It’s almost like our bodies don’t have good fuel and then we have to run a 100 miles in the holidays,” Patel says. “We’re running on empty 100 mph on the freeway.”
Stone and Patel both tell folks to “be intentional” in treating the holiday blues – consciously implementing certain behaviors go a long way towards helping people feeling better.
“Find some way to take the focus off yourself, and intentionally focus on and invest in someone else,” Stone says.
There are increased opportunities this time of year to do just that. Visit people in nursing homes and hospitals, visit a children’s home or a shut-in neighbor, Stone advises.
“You will behave your way into feeling right long before you’ll feel your way into behaving right,” Stone adds.
Intentionally schedule moderation in daily activities by setting aside time to exercise, prioritizing meaningful interactions with people over TV and social media time, and spend time outdoors, he says.
“Do everything in balance,” Patel says.
Editor’s Note: Rev. Stone has been a minister for 28 years, 23 of those at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear. Dr. Patel has more than 15 years experience in diagnosing and treating psychiatric conditions from community based outpatient clinics to hospital based psychiatry. He has treated all age groups and is passionate about holistic treatment.