7 mins read
December 21, 2021

Seasonal Affective Disorder And The Holiday Season

5% of adults in the U.S. experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. Let’s uncover the symptoms of S.A.D., its causes, and ways to manage holiday stress without any seasonal affective disorder.
Courtney Hyzy
Courtney Hyzy
Dr. April Givens

The holiday season is here, or 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 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, 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 skip the holiday season due to the stress it creates. What makes the holidays so stressful? It's okay not to be interested in the eggnog, Carols, or general holiday merriment.

5% of adults in the U.S. experience S.A.D!

Let’s uncover the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), its causes, and ways to manage holiday stress without any seasonal affective disorder.

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 make you a Grinch! The reality is that 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... many family members under one roof can be stressful.

Seasonal Mood Disorder

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 laugh 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 feels like a marathon to get to the end of the year.

Winter Depression & Seasonal Depression

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 seasonal pattern is not an overly friendly time to our mood disorders. The days are short and cold outside, and again, Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" plays everywhere.

Outside of the obvious, why do some of us struggle with depressive disorder and anxiety during the chilly seasonal mood?

Seasonal Affective Disorder - SAD

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 S.A.D.

  • 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 mild at the beginning of the seasonal changes but progressively worsen. There is a difference between seasonal affective disorder and the "winter blues," which affects around 10-20% of Americans.

Mental Health Conditions

The winter blues might leave you 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 family-related responsibilities, and there's snow... which feels like the icing on the cake.

Common Causes of S.A.D.

The cause of seasonal affective disorder is still not fully understood. Still, 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.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency symptoms include fatigue, tiredness, muscle pains, and aches. While correlation does not equal causation, symptoms like those above will make anyone feel not their best physically or mentally. Those already deficient or borderline low should be mindful of their daily vitamin D intake through supplements or foods like milk and fatty fish.

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Major Depressive Disorder

Major depressive episodes are diagnosed when an individual has persistently sad symptoms of:

  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Irritability of worthlessness
  • Lack of energy, appetite change
  • Fatigue and psychomotor retardation
  • Anxiety, sleep disturbances, or suicidal thoughts

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

The fact of the matter is that if you are suffering from depression symptoms, that can be caused by the following:

  1. Bipolar disorder
  2. Winter sad major depression
  3. Depressive episodes
  4. Seasonal affective disorder
  5. Seasonal depression and irritability
  6. Sad symptoms of pattern sad, summer sad, winter sad

You must determine your mood disorder, exact causes, and risk factors. Then, go for the main treatment, either with the help of a health care provider or necessary antidepressant medicines. Planning ahead and mentally preparing can make the depression symptoms more bearable and hopefully treatable.

1) Start Your Seasonal Changes

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.

  • 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.
  • Treat yourself to a relaxing spa package. Plus, there are many great deals during the holiday season, so don't worry about breaking the bank!
  • 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.
  • 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.

Seasonal Depression and Fun

You can also do traditional holiday festivities even if you're alone.

Decorate your house, bake desserts and trauma, 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!

2) Set Boundaries Ahead of Time

If you're anxious about seeing family, you can mentally prepare and protect yourself before stepping on the plane by setting boundaries for the summer and winter months.

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. Take time to reflect on your mood disorder and use those reflections to determine the boundaries you would like to set this year.

► Mental Health Maintaintace

Setting boundaries with your loved ones might feel weird, but boundaries are a healthy way to communicate to others what you will and will not accept. Your health care provider can guide you on what steps you should follow, what antidepressant medicines you should use, and how to deal with your mental health conditions.

3) 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 manage the anxiety and stress disrupting your life effectively.

What's in this Group?

This group is for individuals struggling with anxiety and life stressors who want to learn coping skills, grounding techniques, breathing exercises, identifying triggers, and 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."

Who will be my mental health professional?

Dr. Givens will also host two live video monthly and post-weekly discussions to help you move forward!

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About the Expert - Dr. April Givens

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 specializes in treating anxiety, seasonal depression, trauma, and stress. She has successfully counseled clients with proven results using:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Solution-focused therapy
  • Talk therapy and trauma therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Bright light therapy and phototherapy

How is this counseling beneficial for you?

Dr. April Givens provides action steps in her counseling approach so you can 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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