By Jamie Monfelt, LIMHP
As we move forward to the end of the year there is so much people look forward to; the fall and winter holidays, a new year…some look forward to cooler winter temperatures and snow. But there is a reality that this time is also incredibly difficult for people. There is a misconception about the holidays that they are one big party filled with happiness, laughter, and joy. This is what we see on the television during every commercial of our favorite show; people dressed up in their fanciest clothing, spending time with their families, and giving expensive cars and jewelry as gifts. It’s what we hear on the radio in the “holly jolly” songs of past and present. If you are a shopper, you also see this in the storefront windows of every store wanting you to buy their products for your “special someones”.
Many persons find the holidays and the colder months of the year to be extremely difficult for various reasons. Some persons don’t have loved ones to share their holidays or have lost loved ones. For others it the financial burdens, and socialization of holiday gatherings (or lack of social gatherings due to cold and more recently, a pandemic). These situations and others evoke what is known as Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD). About 5% of persons in the United States experience SAD (which is slightly less than the 6.7% of persons who experience Depression**).
SAD is a mental health disorder which includes symptoms similar to Major Depression Disorder (MDD). Symptoms may include the following: feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, losing interest in activities typically enjoying, changes in appetite or weight, problems with sleep, lack of motivation/energy, feelings hopeless, helpless, worthless, social withdrawal, and trouble concentrated. In most severe cases it may also include frequent thoughts of death or suicide. This particular disorder typically lasts for persons through the winter months (approximately 40% of the year), and subsides in the spring season. Persons who experience MDD typically experience exacerbated symptoms (as described) during the fall and winter months.
Why do persons experience increased symptoms during the fall/winter months? One such reason is the lack of Vitamin D our body receives from the sun. There is a known correlation between Vitamin D from sun exposure and mental health symptoms. Because we have less hours of sunlight in our day, our bodies naturally receive less Vitamin D which can impact our mood. Also from a scientific perspective, our bodies revert to “pre-historic times” in which our eating and sleeping patterns change. Our prehistoric ancestors also dealt with climate changes and harsh conditions which led to hibernation; eating more obtained foods if hunting was poor or unavailable, staying in shelter away from the elements. Therefore, in the winter months, you may experience craving “heavier” foods filled with more carbohydrates and starch. People also may eat more based on these factors (as the body prepares for “hibernation” conditions). You may find yourself wanting to sleep more, and go to bed earlier in evenings, or sleep later into the morning (while it is still dark).
How does one minimize Seasonal Affect Disorder and Depression during the winter months?
There are multiple methods that may be of benefit. Traditional methods may include participation in outpatient therapy to learn effective coping strategies that work best for you. Those coping skills will likely include increasing physical activity (exercise, meditation), and maintaining social activities or contact with supports. Another traditional method may be medication management to provide biochemical benefit and hormonal balance. Research has identified multiple medications which provide mood regulation, including those that optimally impact our Serotonin and Dopamine responses. Other options include Light Therapy (to increase Vitamin D), and Aromatherapy. If you or someone you know experiences SAD or Depression, consider self-help options, talking to a therapist, or other trusted professional.
And, as always, be kind, as you never know what another person is facing in their own life.
**Information obtained from National Institute of Mental Health Disorders (NIMH)