The holiday season for most people is a joyful time of the year filled with social gatherings, time spent with family, friends, parties, celebrations and yearly reflections of what we are thankful for. However, for many people, it’s a time filled with loneliness, sadness, anxiety and melancholy.
With the holiday season in full swing, financial stress, family interaction, social demands, and holiday shopping can drain us of energy, interrupt our sleep, and upset the balance of our diet and exercise regimens. In addition, colder weather and decreased daylight can create a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recognizes seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as a form of depression that comes and goes with the seasons; most commonly starting in late fall and early winter—going away in the spring and summer months. Seasonal affective disorder can cause increased anxiety, sadness, stress, and lack of enjoyment in regular activities. Fatigue, depression, hopelessness, social withdrawal, feelings of isolation, and mood swings are also common feelings that can become debilitating.
Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
If you experience moderate to severe winter depression—meaning it affects several areas of your life and prevents you from doing things - small lifestyle changes may be enough to pick you up when you’re feeling blue. However, this is not necessarily true for everyone. In addition to the suggestions below, seeing a therapist can get you to address negative feelings and learn how to change your perspective and behavior accordingly. It may also help prevent you from falling into the same cycle in the years to come.
- Set realistic expectations: There are a lot of things to prepare for during the holiday seasons from coordinating airport pickups to cleaning the house. Be realistic when organizing your time. Prioritize the most important activities and don’t be afraid to say, “no.” It’s common to get wrapped up in idealizing the outcome of events around the holidays, let go of the outcome, be present and have fun!
- Diet/Exercise: The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests as little as 30-minutes of cardiovascular exercise can provide an immediate mood boost similar to the effects of an antidepressant medication. Nourishing your body with nutrient-dense foods like leafy greens and whole grains can help regulate serotonin levels. Taking a walk or getting outside can also stimulate Vitamin D production which can help stave off depression. In addition, being cognizant of our alcohol consumption and intake of high calorie foods may keep the scale from creeping up more than a few pounds at a time. Before hitting the couch after a large holiday meal, take a walk around the block first. Your digestive system will thank you, and you won’t feel as weighed down.
- Keep social activities manageable: Surrounding yourself with friends and family can help lift your spirits according to the American Psychological Association. Family and friends are great to lean on when you recognize the symptoms of SAD increasing, however, be aware of your limits. It’s OK to say “No” and create space for yourself.
- Create “quiet time” and unplug: When you start to feel overwhelmed by the perfectly decorated table on Pinterest or staying on top of everyone’s travel plans, turn off your phone and take a moment to breathe. Carve out some alone time to recharge and relax away from text, emails, and social media.
- Avoid perfectionism: It’s easy to get wrapped up in finding the perfect present, preparing the perfect meal, or making sure everyone gets along over the holidays. However, when we expect perfection, disappointment is a likely outcome. When we learn to embrace “the now” and accept things as they are, we can appreciate imperfection and flaws. Be kind to yourself!
- Recognize emotional triggers: According to neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, a shortness of breath, tightening of the gut, or tension in muscles can help people identify their physical response to emotions. When you sense a physical change happening, acknowledge those emotions and take a step back. Aunt Sally driving you nuts asking about your boyfriend? Great! Now that you’re aware, you can set limits and boundaries for how much energy and time you are willing to give.
- Know your limits: Johns Hopkins Medicine found seasonal affective disorder affects 10-20% of the population which means feeling sad or lonely around the holidays is more common then we’re led to believe. When you start to notice these feelings arise, give yourself space to acknowledge and recognize how you’re feeling. Be cognizant of your limits so you can remove yourself from stressful situations before they get worse.
Commercials on TV or posts on social media lead us to believe the holidays are a time for joy, gratitude and being surrounded by loved ones, however many of us feel the opposite. Give yourself and your family the freedom this holiday season to focus on what matters most: family, friends, and being close to loved ones.