“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you….” Sorry if that lead-in caused that famous Elvis song to get stuck in your head. Officially named in 1984 as Seasonal Affect Disorder, we commonly refer it as the winter blues and winter depression. It’s rather appropriate that the acronym is SAD as that seems to be the most prevalent feeling expressed by folks that experience the winter blues. In reality, we all seem to experience similar feelings during the SAD season between Halloween and February and March. The timeframe you are affected differs by your location. Northern areas tend to have a longer season and southern areas a shorter season.
SAD is a type of depression so symptoms of depression will likely be present: sadness, excessive sleeping, lack of enjoyment in life activities, mood swings, isolation, etc. Increased anxiety is also common if you are dreading or in fear of the winter months and associated holidays.
Things Thought to Cause SAD
For most folks, there is no single cause but a combination of things that in total start to overwhelm our sense of joy for the winter holiday season.
- History of depressive episodes – if you are already susceptible to some depression, you are at greater risk to experience some SAD. If you have a history of SAD, you are at risk again this year.
- Weather/Seasons/Time changing – All three changes during this season have affect on us. After watching the beauty of fall trees, we get winter. Gone are the vibrant warm colors replaced with cold and lifeless appearing landscapes. Winter is the least liked weather period when polled. It is a known fact that sunny days and warmer weather improves our moods. Reduction in light is known to be a factor in other types of depression and it holds true for SAD, too. Light also enables vitamin D production in the body which is good mood regulation and a healthy immune system.
- Remembering painful events – Unfortunately some negative life experiences occur during the SAD season which create negative feelings associated with the season. Personal losses are grieved more deeply during this season no matter when the loss occurred. As the year comes to a close, it is common to reflect back on the year. For some, reflecting on the negative is more intense than positive memories.I lost my mother, grandmother and mother-in-law during the winter holiday season. Fortunately, all these women lived full lives and passed away when it was time for them. We remember them fondly every year realizing they lived full and abundant lives when they passed.
- Family – For some of us, the thought of mingling with some family members causes anxiety and depression. Remember the old adage, “You can pick you family, but you can pick you friends.” Then some of us marry into another family! I love the time I have with my family but some of them require moderation (and coping skills).
- Money – Money is a stressor for most regardless of season. Winter brings higher utility bills and (sadly) consumerism has overtaken our holiday seasons displacing joy. We find more competition for our money.
- Over Indulging – Be it alcohol or food, these tend to amplify negative feelings that accompany SAD. Alcohol is a depressant despite what people think. And it is especially depressing if you get arrested for drunk driving. Let’s face it, the SAD season is one where food and eating can be indulged.
- Magnetite – This one is for the life energy folks. Our body has trace amounts of mineral called magnetite that is sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field and from both the Moon and Sun. Our seasons change because of the Earth’s orbit around the sun places our hemisphere further away from the Sun. The magnetic influence is lessened in our brain which has been theorized in mood regulation including SAD.
What can you do?
Firstly, take a look at the list above and figure out which ones may be affecting you then identify things that will lessen the effects. Some of these are coping skills some can be alleviated by avoidance. If you have a history of depression or SAD, you should consider taking some anti-depressants and definitely do not stop taking them if you do already. Continue to see your medical management professional and discuss SAD specifically to see if there is additional support needed. In fact, give them a call and schedule an appointment specifically to discuss SAD.
Secondly, talk therapy is always a good idea to help you make it through any difficulties. One of my favorite expressions is “Verbalize to Vaporize.” That’s what talk therapy is. Talking about feelings with a safe friend or a counselor can alleviate and lessen the effects on you. Counseling will help you examine the life issues that are causing the negative feelings then we work to find ways to eliminate or strengthen you psychic armor to deal with your sadness. Recurring feelings of grief result when the winter holiday season is connected to loss of loved ones. Joining a grief therapy group may be a good idea. Certainly, talking with friends or calling a counselor for some brief solution-oriented therapy is a great idea.
Next, you will need to understand and accept that the seasons always change, temperatures get colder and these are your early warning indicators. God owns these things in nature and we have no control over them. But also realize, that the God of your understanding does not want you to be sad and melancholy, either. Working with a counselor can help you reframe your feelings and improve your emotional resilient, too.
Avoid over drinking. Some folks make terrible decisions while having a good time drinking. The cost is too high for everyone affected by those decisions. I suggest you actually drink less and don’t drink alone. Telling you to drink in moderation is the wimpy answer. Drink less or do not drink at all. Honestly, people will not care if you don’t drink at a party. They may thank you later. Let them be the drunk entertainment at the party. Last comment…Uber/Lyft will always be cheaper than bail and likely cheaper than any insurance deductibles.
I should not have to say this but do not use drugs either.
Avoid overeating (my weakness). In our household, we start by not baking excess goodies we do each year. This is a tough one because we have family traditions surrounding baking during the holidays. In past years, we have modified our traditions to make just enough and (try to) giveaway goodies to friends as gifts. We found it was more about the family gathering than about the food. We eat enough along the way. So instead of us getting fatter, we make sure our friends do. Sorry friends!
Parties and other functions require some planning. Go early. Leave early. We try to eat before going to parties and we always have something else planned that requires us to leave early. The worst things to over-indulge are carbohydrates. While our brain needs carbohydrates to function well, it does not need the copious amounts of carbs we like to consume when feeling SAD. Somebody needs to bring the obligatory vegetable tray to a party, why not you? Eating healthier through the season will help even if you have some food relapses along the way. Eating the wrong foods and gaining weight will only increase SAD feelings.
One of the best things you can do for SAD is to exercise. Your body benefits from the oxygen, endorphins, serotonin and melatonin that are generated through exercise. Don’t do anything that might hurt you because you don’t need the added health stress while dealing with other SAD symptoms. Take a walk outside for 15 minutes…weather permitting.
Light therapy has been used in depression and for SAD. It is just what is sounds like. Expose yourself to more light. Natural light is best but there are many light therapy boxes and lights available for purchase. These involve setting out time to expose yourself to direct light which helps stimulate the brain activity and helps build vitamin D. Good results have been achieved for people with depression.
Money budgeting is pretty common task when I do relationship counseling. So if you have money concerns, begin planning your budget for the season earlier in the year. If you are away on vacation, home for the holidays, buying presents, hosting parties….you need to plan ahead. In my household, we dread the credit card bill in January. Having a budget is one thing but it takes sacrifice, compromise and dedication to stick to it. Spending money feels good (pleasure center) and more so if you convince yourself it is for someone else. But the bill comes to you in the end. Don’t add more financial stress to an existing money issue.
Just the thought of having to interact or dealing with families in this season is a source of negative thinking. Your first choice is to avoid them. While this will alleviate some negativity in your life, it is ultimately going to come back next year. If you have family issues you cannot resolve, then seek out a counselor to help you identify the core issues then work towards resolving them within yourself or with the family member(s). Do not isolate yourself and avoid everyone. You can always pick another ‘family’ in the form of friends. In our family, we have knack for including non-family friends into our activities.
I would encourage volunteering, too. Helping others less fortunate helps us re-focus SAD feelings. Volunteering just feels good, too, and helps others that need it. This one is my personal favorite. I have also found social involvement in my client as a sign they are improving.
How you respond to your SAD symptoms is controllable in many circumstances. Maintaining a positive outlook is important every day. One day at a time. On the days when you are struggling, just keep hope that your feelings will change. Don’t be afraid to use those people, places or things which help you cope with SAD. Utilize those tools that work for you and try new ones that look hopeful. Should you have feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, you need to seek out help from a counselor. The winter season is also beautiful if you look around and the holiday season is meant to joyous for everyone…even people with SAD.
Written by Chip Sutherland, LPC Counselor at Cobalt Counseling, LLC, Frisco Texas. Chip specializes in relationship counseling, men’s mental health, teenage angst, anger, depression, anxiety, feeling stuck in life, substance use, life adjustments, work-life balancing and coaching/mentoring.