For many, the holiday season is a time of joy and laughter, love and connection, family and fun. However, the joy may be overshadowed by important end-of-the-year work deliverables, financial stain, and strained family interactions. For the 10 million Americans living with seasonal depression, the holidays can coincide with increased symptoms of depression: fatigue, low energy, social withdrawal, loss of interest, irritability, hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in activities, and more.
Those who live with depression year-round may see an increase in symptoms during the winter months. Seasonal depression, however, describes depressive symptoms that are only present during certain months of the year—typically the winter months. A very small number of those affected by seasonal depression have symptoms during summer months.
While seasonal depression affects only about 5% of the population, 10-20% may have some symptoms of a milder form of the condition. Anyone can experience seasonal depression, but the condition is most common in adults, predominantly women of childbearing age. And seasonal depression is more prevalent in northern latitudes where inhabitants experience much less daylight.
The precise cause of seasonal depression is not fully understood. Our body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, is known to be disrupted by shorter periods of daylight during winter months. Sunlight helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Experts believe increased production of melatonin and decreased release of serotonin during winter months are significant contributing factors. Melatonin is known to induce sleep, while serotonin is associated with positive mood, appetite, and sleep cycle.
Those who are more prone to feeling down, depressed, and hopeless, or those with other pre-existing behavioral health conditions, may be more vulnerable to developing seasonal depression. Individuals who generally gravitate toward negative thoughts or anticipate winter months with dread are also more likely to experience symptoms of seasonal depression.
Seasonal depression is more than just feeling down or tired during winter months. It may cause serious impairment and can be debilitating for those who are most impacted. Because symptoms of seasonal depression may remain for 40% of the year, or nearly five months, the impact on relationships, loss of productivity, and overall health and wellbeing consequences cannot be overstated. At its most severe, seasonal depression may trigger or exacerbate substance misuse or lead to thoughts of suicide.
The good news is that seasonal depression, like other forms of depression, is highly treatable. Natural and self-help strategies may be sufficient to combat seasonal depression for many. Talk to your PCP or a behavioral health provider if you believe you may be experiencing seasonal depression and before trying any of the self-help strategies noted below. Please note, the following strategies are not a substitute for seeking medical advice.
- Seek Sunlight. Direct sunlight on skin increases the body’s production of vitamin D, shown in research to help regulate mood and decrease risk of depression. While natural sunlight is best, bright light therapy with specially designed, full-spectrum lamps has been shown to provide the same health benefits.
- Prioritize Sleep. Maintaining a consistent sleep-wake cycle supports the body’s circadian rhythm and helps to ensure the recommended 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Creating a light-dark cycle can be helpful. Waking with the sun and using light therapy in the mornings can boost mood and energy. Minimizing light exposure, especially blue light from computer monitors or televisions, at least two hours prior to your bedtime, can help combat insomnia.
- Get Moving. The benefits of regular exercise for physical and emotional wellbeing cannot be overstated. Exercise aids in stress management, reducing anxiety and improving mood. It also helps improve quality of sleep and digestion. Exercising outside doubles the benefit with exposure to natural sunlight plus exercise. Consider engaging in outdoor home projects during colder months, taking walks routinely regardless of temperature, and even parking at a distance from your destination regardless of the weather.
- Eat For Wellbeing. Along with exercise, a healthy diet can support and enhance both physical and emotional wellbeing. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean protein can play a critical role in supporting mood. Look for fish rich in vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids such as tuna, salmon, sardines, and rainbow trout. Berries contain antioxidants and are also known to boost mood. Look for whole grains, leafy green vegetables, beans high in fiber, and berries. Dark chocolate with at least 70-80% cacao contains magnesium, zinc, iron, and other minerals associated with cognition, mood, and energy.
- Indulge In Moderation. Limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol can trigger or exacerbate depressive symptoms in addition to causing dehydration and adding empty calories. Caffeine can cause spikes and crashes of energy and can greatly disrupt sleep cycles. Limit or avoid sugar and sugar substitutes. Seek out natural sources of sweetness such as fruits, honey, or pure maple syrup to sweeten recipes as needed.
- Prioritize Connection. Human connection is critical to emotional wellbeing. Avoid the instinct to hibernate during the cold, dreary weather. Social isolation is closely associated with depression and can also lead to over-consumption of alcohol and misuse of other substances. Connecting with others can reduce stress in the moment and improve mood. Seek out friends and family who tend to be optimistic and positive. Find social activities you look forward to and proactively fill your social calendar with. Limit the use of social media as this type of connection can have a negative impact on wellbeing.
- Talk To Someone. Natural and self-help strategies may not be sufficient to address seasonal depression for everyone. Talk therapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is particularly effective for treating seasonal depression and other types of depression. CBT helps identify thoughts and ideas that may be irrational, negative, or distorted, and teaches skills to identify, shift, and reframe thinking errors. For seasonal depression, it involves retraining ourselves to think differently about the darker winter months and reframes the feeling of dread some have as the days get shorter. One benefit of CBT is that, once learned, CBT skills can be utilized yearly if seasonal depression is recurrent. It can also help you prepare your mind in advance of the colder, darker weather.
- Check In With Your PCP. Make sure to talk to your primary care physician (PCP) about both your physical wellbeing and your emotional wellbeing. Share specifics about how you are coping with stress, how you are sleeping, your diet, exercise habits, and overall mood. Your doctor may want to run tests to look for deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and hormones closely tied to mood and emotional wellbeing. Prescription medications for depression have also been shown to be effective for seasonal depression and may be needed by some.
IF YOU NEED HELP…
If the holidays are proving to be a challenging time and you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, or thinking about suicide, there is help. You can reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988 any time of day or night. Blue KC also offers its members access to Mindful by Blue KC, a program to support those experiencing a mental health crisis or other behavioral healthcare need. Mindful by Blue KC connects members with a Mindful Advocate, a licensed behavioral health clinician you can reach by phone anytime, who can provide in-the-moment support or help connect you with supportive resources or counseling. A Mindful Advocate can be reached by calling 833-302-MIND (6463).