‘Tis The Season… For Feeling Sad

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‘Tis The Season… For Feeling Sad

By Milissa Aronson

Posted: December 8, 2023 A frozen berry alone on a frozen twig. Late fall/early winter can bring on mood changes. Whether you have the holiday blues, winter blues, or struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder, there is hope! Reach out to Milissa Aronson at Magnolia Psychotherapy, LLC today.

Holiday Blues, Winter Blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Holiday Blues, Winter Blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)The weeks between early November and mid-December are often associated with a lot of transition. The weather gets colder, leaves fall off trees, we start getting inundated with reminders of the upcoming holidays, and we experience less and less daylight each day. If you start feeling sad around this time of year, you are far from alone. Many people notice a change in how they feel during this time of year. Some may feel less motivated to do things, seek out more comfort foods and activities, and feel an urge to “hibernate.” Other people may notice feelings of anxiety, sadness, and loneliness that are specifically related to the holidays.  Others may struggle with a kind of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  It can be hard to tell the difference between these conditions, especially since they often come on around the same time of year and the symptoms look similar.  What is the difference?

Holiday Blues

While the holidays may be associated with a time of celebration and joy, for some people, they can be a source of stress, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. Holiday Blues can result from unrealistic expectations one has around the holidays. These expectations may be fueled by family, media, society, or self-imposed; the pressure or interpretation of these expectations can contribute to Holiday Blues. Grief and loss are another  contributing factor and may be felt more intensely during the holidays. This is particularly true if someone recently experienced a significant life change or if the holidays are connected to the experience of a significant loss, such as the loss of a loved one on or near the holiday date.  The main thing that sets the Holiday Blues apart from Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder is that these feelings are transient and will pass once the holiday season ends.

Holiday Blues Coping Strategies

  •  Set Realistic Goals and Expectations – Set achievable expectations for the holidays for yourself and your loved ones to help manage stress and reduce the likelihood of disappointment. 
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Prioritize self-care activities, such as adequate sleep, healthy eating, and relaxation, which can contribute to emotional well-being.
  • Seek Support- Talk to friends, family, or a mental health professional who can provide valuable support during challenging times.

Remind Yourself that Your Experience is Temporary and Will Pass Once the Holiday Season Ends!

Winter Blues

The Winter Blues refers to the experience of having less energy, less motivation, and a sense of feeling down during the winter months. The Winter Blues are distinct from the Holiday Blues in that you may not be able to pinpoint the reason for feeling the way you do. Someone experiencing Holiday Blues often knows that their feelings are connected to the holidays, while someone experiencing Winter Blues may know why they feel what they feel.  Winter Blues are different from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the severity of symptoms. SAD is a true form of depression, meeting formal diagnostic criteria (described below), while the symptoms of Winter Blues are generally more low-key. Someone experiencing Winter Blues may report occasional sadness, but will not feel it consistently. More often, someone with Winter Blues may describe themselves as having an overall sense of feeling “blah.”

Winter Blues are caused by the change of season, particularly the reduction in sunlight. Reduced sunlight leads to decreased levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood. The changes in daylight also affect circadian rhythms, disrupting sleep patterns and affecting energy levels. 

Winter Blues Coping Strategies

  • Light- Exposure to bright light, especially in the morning, can help regulate circadian rhythms and improve mood. Natural sunlight is the best option for this, but short exposures to a lightbox (approximately 30 minutes) may be a backup option in some circumstances (individuals with certain eye diseases, taking certain medications, or with a sensitivity to sunlight should speak with their doctor before trying a lightbox).
  • Exercise- Increasing physical activity has been shown to boost energy levels, increase serotonin levels, and improve moods.      Maintain Routines Outside Home-Set at least one day or evening each week to participate in something you enjoy doing outside of your home. 
  • Socialize- Maintain your social connections. Set a goal to see friends or loved ones in person at a minimum frequency that feels reasonable to you and stick to that frequency- even when it is difficult to do this. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects someone for 4-5 months each year during the same season. SAD typically affects people during the fall and winter months, although some individuals, conversely, struggle with SAD during the spring and summer months.   The symptoms of SAD are similar to the symptoms of Depression, except SAD’s symptoms only occur seasonally. Symptoms include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, or feeling “empty” most of the day, most days.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, irritability, worthlessness, helplessness, or frustration.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities.     
  • Loss of energy.      
  • Difficulty concentrating.      
  • Physical aches and pains.     
  • Thoughts of death and dying.     
  • Changes in sleep.     
  • Changes in appetite and weight.

The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but several factors are believed to contribute to its development. Reduced exposure to sunlight during the fall and winter months is a primary factor. Sunlight plays a crucial role in regulating the body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, and the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Insufficient sunlight exposure may disrupt these processes, leading to the onset of SAD. Reduced exposure to light also affects melatonin production, which affects sleep-wake cycles, contributing to symptoms of depression.  Additionally, genetics is also believed to play a role. Individuals with a personal or family history of depression or anxiety or more likely to develop SAD.  

Treatment for SAD

While mild SAD may be managed with the same lifestyle changes as the Winter Blues, it is often beneficial to seek professional help. Getting Vitamin D levels checked by a primary care provider may help determine supplement needs. Psychotherapy could also be helpful to personal coping skills and work on future prevention strategies. Medication may be indicated for some symptoms.  Additionally, emergency assistance may be required for anyone struggling with thoughts of wanting to harm themselves or someone else- in these situations, it is important to call 988 or 911 or head to the nearest emergency room.