7 mins read
December 21, 2021

Seasonal Affective Disorder And The Holiday Season

Courtney Hyzy
Courtney Hyzy
Dr. April Givens
Courtney Hyzy
Seasonal Affective Disorder And The Holiday Season

The holiday season is here, or well, it's been here since the day after Halloween, but now it's really here. The radio is seemingly on a non-stop loop of Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You." Most television commercials feature someone buying their loved one a car (a car!?) for Christmas, and every store smells of cinnamon and pine. 'Tis the season. Some thrive during this time of year as if they were made for it. You probably know someone who put up their Christmas tree on November 1, their shopping is already done and presents are wrapped, and their oven is raring to bake an endless supply of cookies and desserts.

And then some of us dread this time of year.

Instead of feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve full of excitement and wonder, there are those of us actively ready for it to be January 2. But try telling someone that you're not a fan of the holidays, and you might be met with a "but why? It's such a magical time of the year!" The fact is, the holidays can be downright stressful. In 2020, 39.9% of Americans said they would opt to skip the holiday season due to the stress it creates. What makes the holidays so stressful? It's okay to not be interested in the eggnog, Carols, or general holiday merriment.

The Stress of The Holidays

There are myriad reasons why a person might not enjoy this time of year or what it represents, which doesn't outright make you a Grinch! The reality is, some do not want to see their family for the holidays. Whether it's the uncle who makes inappropriate comments at the dinner table, the aunt who refers to your same-sex partner as your "friend," or the sibling who loves to pick a fight as their Christmas present... a lot of family members under one roof can be stressful. And some experienced loss this year and are about to endure their first holiday season without a loved one's funny rendition of Jingle Bells, or how they could make a whole room burst into laughter by retelling a story they told every previous Christmas. Even if you are excited to see your family this year, the holidays can still be emotionally demanding. Between traveling, hosting get-togethers, and finding the perfect gift, it starts to feel like a marathon just to get to the end of the year. 

The holidays can be downright expensive, too. In 2020, Americans expected to spend $998 on gifts and other holiday expenses. That number might seem outrageously high, but it really does add up when you start to factor in costs like airline tickets, gas for the car, dinners at restaurants, and hotels. Outside of the typical holiday stress most of us experience, the winter is not an overly friendly time to our emotional health. The days are short, it's cold outside, and again Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" is playing everywhere. Outside of the obvious, why do some of us seem to struggle more during the chilly, winter weather?

Seasonal Affective Disorder

According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 5% of adults in the U.S. experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, with 75% of those affected being women. S.A.D. is a form of depression that comes to fruition by changing seasons, commonly when Autumn starts.

Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Issues with sleep, including hypersomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low energy/lethargy
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities
  • Feeling depressed
  • Craving carbohydrates/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal and isolation, akin to hibernating

These symptoms often start out mild at the beginning of the seasonal changes but progressively worsen. There is a difference between S.A.D. and the "winter blues," which affects around 10-20% of Americans. The winter blues might leave you feeling a bit unhappier than during summer, but it doesn't interfere with your daily life.  The fact is, the winter months can be a lonely time. Outdoor activities are limited, the days are grey and overcast, friends are busy with their own family-related responsibilities, and there's snow... which really feels like the icing on the cake.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The cause of S.A.D. is still not fully understood, but research indicates that people with the disorder may have reduced serotonin activity, whereas other research suggests those affected might produce too much melatonin. There's also the lack of vitamin D, or the "Sunshine Vitamin," during winter. Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency can include fatigue, tiredness, muscle pains, and aches. While correlation does not equal causation, symptoms like those above are sure to make anyone feel not their best physically or mentally. Those who are already deficient or borderline low should be mindful of getting their daily vitamin D intake through supplements or foods like milk and fatty fish.

How To Manage Holiday Stress and S.A.D.

The fact of the matter is, we're going to have to deal with winter and the holidays whether we like it or not. But planning ahead and mentally preparing can make the season a bit more bearable and hopefully enjoyable. 

Start Your Own Traditions

If you want to (or have to) forgo seeing family for the holidays, you can make the holidays "your own" by starting new traditions that make YOU happy and get you out of the house.

*Gingerbread and Christmas music optional.
  1. Book an Airbnb or hotel (even better if you find somewhere with a hot tub or fireplace!) in a small town free of responsibilities or commitments.
  2. Treat yourself to a nice, relaxing spa package. Plus, there are lots of great deals during the holiday season, so don't worry about breaking the bank!
  3. Volunteer for a local non-profit that aims to give back to your local community. It's also a great way to meet like-minded people within your city while helping others.
  4. Connect with others who might be staying home for the holidays. If your friends are busy, check out MeetUp or your local communities subreddit on Reddit and see if anyone wants to go on a hike or have a friendly get-together. 

You can also do traditional holiday festivities even if you're alone. Decorate your house, bake desserts and give them to friends or local business owners. And thanks to technology, you can stay connected with loved ones by setting up a family Zoom on Christmas Day. You might be alone, but you don't have to be lonely!

Set Boundaries Ahead of Time

If you're feeling anxious or stressed about seeing family, you can mentally prepare and protect yourself before you even step foot on the plane by setting and communicating boundaries.

These boundaries can be anything from:

Off-limit topics

If you have a family member who likes to question why you won't get back together with your ex, tell them it's off-limits. This boundary could sound like: "I know you really liked my ex, but I am no longer with them for reasons personal to me. If you bring them up at Christmas, I will need to remove myself from the conversation."

Gift Giving 

If giving or receiving gifts has been problematic in the past, make friends and family aware of what they can expect from you. This could sound like: "I will only purchase gifts for the immediate family this year due to my financial restraints. I'm asking everyone else to not buy or expect gifts from me."

Time Limitations

If a family member wants you to commit to more time in town than you want or can commit to, it's okay to say no. This could sound like: "I appreciate you wanting me to visit for longer, but I can only be in town from December 23-26. I have already made arrangements, and I will not move my plans."

It might feel strange setting boundaries with your loved ones, but boundaries are a healthy way to communicate to others what you will and will not accept. Take time to reflect on what has made you anxious on previous holidays and use those reflections to determine the boundaries you would like to set this year.

Reach Out For Help

If you're feeling overwhelmed as the holidays approach, consider joining our expert-led peer support group Anxiety and Stress Management with Dr. Givens to learn how to effectively manage the anxiety and stress disrupting your life. This group is for individuals struggling with anxiety and life stressors who want to learn coping skills, grounding techniques, breathing exercises, identifying triggers, and so much more! Why join a support group? It's an affordable way to talk to an expert like Dr. Givens and gain the positive support you need from your peers, which can help you feel less alone, especially during the holiday season. And because this is a peer support group, you'll have the opportunity to learn from others and gain positive feedback from those who "get it." Dr. Givens will also host two live video meets a month and post weekly discussions to help you move forward on your journey!

About the expert:

Dr. April Givens is a licensed professional counselor supervisor, Ph.D., certified trauma therapist, certified hypnotherapist, and certified in holistic health with ten years of experience as a therapist. Along with counseling adults and children, she is a motivational speaker and consultant. She has successfully counseled clients with proven results using cognitive behavioral therapy, solution-focused therapy, trauma therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy, and specializes in treating anxiety, depression, trauma, and stress.

Dr. Givens provides action steps in her counseling approach so you can begin to see immediate results in your life! She also believes in spirituality and brings a unique perspective to the counseling experience.

Have you spent the holidays alone? If so, what forms of self-care did you do to make it enjoyable? Share in the comments to help give our community inspiration!

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