‘Tis the season to be jolly…for most of us. For others, this time of year can bring about debilitating emotions that are not so merry and bright.
How frustrating to feel the holiday season immerse the world in dazzling lights, in hopeful messages, in catchy melodies, in warm fires and beverages shared with loved ones…but not feel joy from it. To feel disconnected when society comes together for a common purpose once a year. To feel unmotivated and uninspired to share gifts with others when a gift would be simply getting through the day.
The condition is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and its effects should not be taken lightly. It might be easy to simply brush off low moods as the “winter blues,” but these feelings are valid and should be treated accordingly.
Colored lights strung from shutters and trees. Bright array of commercials for every event and sale piling upon each other leading up to Christmas. Red hats with the traditional white fur trimming their brims. Metallic golds and silvers splayed upon evergreen branches in tinsel garlands. An entire spectrum of color, and yet December can seem simply dull. The weather is either a desolute sea of brown grass and bare branches, or a thick layer of white frost, ice and snow covering every surface. The “blue” of SAD is a much greyer hue.
SAD is a type of depression brought on by changing seasons, most commonly during the change of autumn into winter. The symptoms associated with SAD also tend to become increasingly severe as the months wear on. Up to 5 percent of the population (especially in northern states) may suffer from it. Women are four times more likely than men to develop SAD, and it’s more common among younger people, ages 20 to 50, with a general decrease in symptoms as life progresses.
At least the holidays break up a string of cold, dreary that otherwise feel like an endless wandering through the tundra with no warmth or refuge in sight. Once December 26 hits, the magic wrapping the depression in colorful paper is ripped from the package and thrown away, exposing the internal nature that comes from an overly muted external nature.
As a type of depression, it’s still as detrimental to overall wellness as any other depression diagnosis. That means the symptoms of SAD are the same of those of major depressive disorder, or MDD: feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day, losing interest in once enjoyable activities, having low energy, having problems with sleeping, experiencing changes in appetite or weight, feeling sluggish or agitated, having difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty, and potentially having thoughts of death or suicide.
“It’s the holidays, you’re fine!”
“You just need to get in the holiday spirit!”
“You’re being a Grinch! A Scrooge! It’s the best time of the year, you should be happy!”
The specific causes of SAD are still pretty vague, but the change of seasons and all that it brings tend to throw people off. The reduced sunlight in fall and winter tend to throw off the circadian rhythm of sleep and wakefulness, simultaneously skewing the brain’s levels of serotonin and melatonin. Each of these neurotransmitters play major roles in mood and sleep patterns.
With its tendency to ebb and flow as the seasons change, the stigma surrounding SAD is perpetuating by a disbelief that symptoms can come and go as they do, assuming them to be less severe they probably are. Especially since SAD is a mental illness, people can too easily brush it aside and move forward with the holiday festivities as planned. However, regardless of the joy and good will promoted this time of year, no number of decorations and carols can mask the real, present emotions lurking under the surface.
There’s so much to celebrate, so why put a damper on anything? Well, to fulfill the definition behind “good will toward men,” a helping hand for those struggling to keep up with the holiday noise and bustle can be the most festive thing to do. Everyone deserves the opportunity to a wonderful holiday season, but some need more support than others. Let’s not leave them behind to get sucked into the holiday bustle and noise.
Just as people with the flu or breast cancer can’t switch off their symptoms, people with SAD can’t simply decide to turn off their disorder. SAD is a grave mental disorder and can severely hinder the ability to function and perform normal activities. People with SAD often withdraw from their friends and struggle to complete simple tasks, let alone manage the stress and busier schedules that arise this time of year.
Treatment approaches to alleviate the symptoms of SAD typically include combinations of antidepressant medication, light therapy, Vitamin D, and counseling. As a means of self-care for those who may be prone to SAD, it’s best monitor mood and energy levels, take advantage of available sunlight, pan pleasurable activities for the winter season, and when symptoms develop, seek help sooner rather than later.
It’s typical to give gifts wrapped in boxes and bows, but the best gift to give is a simple reminder to struggling loved ones to say, “I’m here for you. Your feelings are valid. You are not alone.” Those affected by SAD are probably already frustrated by the obvious hypocrisy of feeling the lowest when the world promotes the highest moods and general elation.
That’s where empathy and awareness come in. Perhaps the season isn’t the most merry, but hopefully it’s at least manageable when surrounded with supportive people and resources as well as the gifts already present in life that make it worth living.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie