How the holidays may worsen conditions for those with seasonal affective disorder

By Carolyn Sistrand, AccuWeather staff writer

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The holidays are a very happy time for many, despite the season being cold and rather dreary for parts of the country. For others, the seasonal changes cause added stress and sadness during their holiday season.

“One in five people approximately in the United States in some degree are affected by the changing of seasons,” said Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., and author of Winter Blues. “We call it seasonality.”

These feelings can be minor, otherwise known as the “Winter Blues.” More severe symptoms, however, could mean seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD


SAD, a concept coined by Rosenthal, is a mental disorder similar to depression. Those who suffer from it find that they struggle to manage stress, feel added stresses and anxieties, become more isolated from social situations and feel sad, among other symptoms, as the fall and winter months approach.

What differentiates this disorder from depression is that the season dictates the moods, and with the added commotion of the holidays coinciding with the peak months for SAD, it makes December anything but jolly for those who suffer.

“[The holidays are] a time when people are having great fun with their families, children, grandchildren,” said Rosenthal. “Let’s say you don’t have this; it’s a very lonely time for people who don’t have something fun happening in their lives.”

Holiday shopping, planning and gatherings can also become difficult for SAD suffers.

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“People feel very stressed by the holidays,” said Rosenthal. “All the logistics of planning, people feeling like they have to buy gifts and the gifts have to be special. These things are added stresses as people are struggling to get their normal life on track.”

It is important to note, however, that added stress and anxieties during the holiday season may not mean you have SAD.

Everyone experiences stress during all seasons, but those who may suffer from SAD noticeably change in mood and lifestyle during these specific months. While they may not notice it, it is typically something that happens each year.

Being aware of these oncoming symptoms can be key in discovering, and properly treating, the disorder.

“It is not just that they feel sad; there are really a lot of other things going on in the body and the mind at the same time," said Rosenthal. "In the body, there is an increased need for sleep, it is difficult to get up in the morning, the energy level is down, and it’s just harder to get things done. In the mind, there is a slowing down; you don’t make the same connections as easily and as readily as you normally do. There is a reluctance to socialize; you tend to withdraw from friends or family.”

Changes in diet and exercise can also indicate, and even worsen the symptoms, of SAD. These habits can cause weight gain and other issues, making sufferers feel like they are failing even more.

Blaming outside factors is common of SAD patients. To them, it seems like everything around them is making them feel the way they are feeling which does not allow them to notice or understand what is going on within themselves. Comparisons to others, also, make suffers feel rejected or not good enough.

Teenage girl looking out the window


While the seasons always change and the holidays may cause new stresses, these reasons should not stop you from overcoming SAD. Treatment for SAD involves self-discipline and honesty, along with some physical changes.

Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine is always beneficial, but exposure to light can help in reducing seasonal sadness. Light boxes are one treatment method recommended for SAD sufferers, and when used properly, they can better your mood. Some experience immediate results, but Rosenthal tells people that they should give the treatment seven to 10 days to really kick in.

Incorporating light into your home and life can be done without a light box as well. Making areas in your home brighter, by adding more lamps or adjusting light fixtures, can be a seemingly small change that has a big effect.

Reduction of stress in any way you can is another major factor in treating SAD.

“The holidays and the difficulties of SAD can collude with each other in terms of making life more difficult,” said Rosenthal. "It is very common."


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