Watch any Christmas episode of your favorite sitcom and you’re guaranteed 30 minutes filled with celebrations, a happy ending, togetherness, and general good cheer. But for those who experience depression or seasonal depression, the merriment you see in a classic Christmas episode can feel unattainable. Instead of looking forward to the holidays, you feel a sense of dread because it means struggling to put on a happy face when, in fact, you are feeling anything but that.
For people experiencing depression, the holidays can be especially challenging for a variety of reasons, including worsening symptoms due to increased holiday-related stress and the change in seasons. Other people develop seasonal depression, which tends to start in early fall and lasts until early spring. It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of people have mild cases of seasonal depression, while 4 to 6 percent have more severe symptoms.
Symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling depressed the majority of most days
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or difficulty waking up
- Changes in energy and psychomotor activity (feeling sluggish or agitated)
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Trouble concentrating
- Thoughts of death or suicide (If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 to talk to someone. You are not alone and there is hope!)
Additionally, symptoms that are specific to seasonal depression in the winter include:
- Weight gain
- Social isolation
If you are someone who experiences depression or seasonal depression, there are steps you can take to help manage and reduce your symptoms. In my psychotherapy practice, I work with clients to create a plan to help them manage their symptoms so that they can enjoy the holidays. For my clients who know that their depressive symptoms worsen in the winter, or if they develop seasonal depression as soon as the days get shorter, we create a plan ahead of time so that it is ready to implement as the seasons change.
Having a plan to manage your symptoms is always beneficial, but it is particularly important this year because of the additional stress, change, and isolation many of us are experiencing from the pandemic and social unrest.
If you are interested in creating your own plan to manage your symptoms, consider the following suggestions, but please consult a healthcare professional before implementing any of these strategies. This list is meant for informational purposes only.
Stress can make your depressive symptoms worse so it is important to identify any sources of stress that could be contributing to the intensity of your symptoms. Common sources of stress can be financial, relational, situational, or environmental. Once you’ve identified the likely sources of stress, find ways to help minimize those stressors. For example, if family gatherings are a source of stress for you, consider attending fewer gatherings or for a lesser amount of time.
Schedule a health check-up
It’s also important to set up an appointment with your healthcare provider so that you can rule out any other medical cause for your symptoms. (For example, a thyroid imbalance can contribute to depressive symptoms.) They can also test your Vitamin D levels because it is thought that low Vitamin D levels can affect your body’s ability to maintain healthy serotonin levels, which can affect your mood.
A licensed mental health professional can diagnose and treat your depressive symptoms. They will put together a treatment plan and help you put it into practice, and they can also recommend a psychiatrist if medication can help you manage your symptoms. If you aren’t sure whether or not you need therapy, do some research reading to gain insight. Therapy can be incredibly beneficial and you might be surprised by how much you enjoy meeting with your therapist.
Invest in a “happy light”
Because the low light levels and fewer daylight hours are thought to contribute to lower serotonin levels, consider trying light therapy. These special lights mimic daylight and can help mitigate the effects of dark winter days. You only have to sit near the light for about 30 minutes in the morning to experience its benefits.
Let go of unhealthy expectations & thinking
While your expectations and negative thoughts about the holidays may not be causing your depressive symptoms, they could be contributing to the worsening of your symptoms. Try to let go of comparing your holidays to what you think they “should” look like, or how they compare to others’ experiences. When you compare your experience to an idealized one, it will always fall short. So, instead of comparing or setting expectations, focus on practicing gratitude and minimizing stress.
Don’t forget about exercise
And finally, exercise is a powerful stress reliever and plays a role in helping to reduce symptoms of both depression and anxiety. Try to aim for the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily, as recommended by the CDC. Exercise with a family member or friend if you are able to, and pick something that you enjoy. If you love biking or spin classes, go for it! If walking is more your style, embrace that and focus on adding more of it to your day.