I should probably clarify that the “winter blues” and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are not necessarily the same thing. If a client reports that they have a case of the winter blues (or holiday blues as some call it), I want to learn more about the onset, quality, and severity of symptoms they are experiencing.
All of these factors exist together, and it’s important to recognize them accurately in order to understand the individual’s experience. So first, is this a person who feels a little down, is maybe sleeping a couple hours more than usual, but is generally functioning fairly well? Or is this a person who has the signs, symptoms, and severity indicative of a major mood disorder?
Generally, there are many factors that can contribute to the onset of mood disturbances, be it the “winter blues,” which is usually fairly mild in nature, or SAD, which is a serious mood disorder. A person’s unique make-up, including neurotransmitters and hormones are involved, but likewise the meaning we attach to holidays (any associated grief regarding personal losses, the decreased social activities and decreased physical activity we often experience during the winter months) all of these factors greatly impact our mood.
When we talk about SAD, we are referring first and foremost to a serious mood disorder that recurs far more often than not during a particular season of the year.
Typically, SAD manifests as a depressive disorder, the symptoms of which may include:
- Feelings of sadness or irritability (more days than not)
- Lost interest in hobbies or activities that you used to find enjoyable
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and/or helplessness
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts about death and/or suicide
Relatively few people report all symptoms, but when a certain cluster of symptoms is present, the criteria for a depressive disorder is met.
We all attach different meaning to the holidays. For many, the holiday season is a time to reflect on positive memories, to participate in social functions and to enjoy loved ones. Although many of us find these times enjoyable, the holiday season is also inescapably stressful. Most families are so busy, and we become even more so during the weeks and months surrounding the holidays. We know from research that stress can precipitate a depressive episode.
In addition to stress, when we consider national and local crises (e.g. the economy, recent floods, etc.) that have preceded the holidays, a lot of people are going to be more limited financially this year than in past years. This can interfere with our ability to travel or experience the holidays in the ways that we have grown accustomed.
Additionally, the holiday season can also be experienced by some as a reminder of their emotional losses – reflecting, for example, on loved ones who are no longer with us. And lastly, consider the impact of shorter days, less daylight, colder weather, and the lifestyle changes that accompany these seasonal factors. Keep in mind that our emotions do not exist in a vacuum. All of these external factors can contribute to feeling down, or even depressed.
First of all, it’s important to know there is help out there. Depression is treatable. If an individual is dealing with depression of the severity of SAD, they really need to consult with a mental health professional, be it a counselor, a psychologist or a psychiatrist. If suicidal thoughts are present, it’s extremely important to talk with someone.
For severe depression, there are a number of effective medication options. For SAD, light therapy is also a common treatment of choice. There are also many effective physical and behavioral methods that can relieve the symptoms of depression. Increasing physical activity, examining and altering one’s diet, increasing social involvement, volunteering to help others – these are all ways to actively combat depression.
Know, however, that one of the characteristics of depression is that it is often difficult to find the motivation to make these important life changes. That’s where counseling can help greatly.