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Holiday blues: 1 in 5 feel down this winter

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Posted at 7:37 AM, Nov 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-11 18:14:54-05

Good food, time with family and time off of work — the holidays are the greatest.

Except when they’re not.

This holiday season, as many as 1 in 5 Americans will feel down during the holidays with an affliction called the winter or holiday “blues.” About 2 percent suffer from a more severe issue called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“It can range from a mild low feeling that could be there because of the shortened days. There’s a more severe form where the decrease in sunlight triggers a clinical depression,” said University of Cincinnati psychiatrist and depression expert Erik Nelson. “It can be a couple of different things for different people.”

Symptoms of SAD includes sadness, anxiety, weight gain, lack of energy and withdrawal. Weight gain is more common in SAD than in typical depression. The hallmark, though, is that SAD tends to go away in the spring.

Women and young people are most affected, as are those living at higher latitudes, where sunlight shrinks the most in winter. One study found nearly 10 percent of people living in New Hampshire experience SAD, compared to just 1.4 percent of those in sunny Florida.

Getting out into the sun – even if it’s cold out – can help reverse the effects of SAD. Nelson suggested 20 to 30 minutes per day of natural sunlight or using a light box. Exercise, vitamin D, antidepressants and psychotherapy can also help.

The more mild “holiday blues” can happen for several reasons, including the lack of sunlight.

Getting the family together could bring back bad memories or past tension. Sometimes, people expect too much of their flawed relatives, which leads to conflict.

“We associate the holidays with a wonderful, happy feeling but for some people that comes with all sorts of baggage,” Nelson said.

Nelson said scheduling breaks might help keep the cabin fever from setting in.

“Modify the exposure to someone who gets on your nerves,” Nelson said, and go in with reasonable expectations so you don’t feel disappointed.

For people who suffer from year-round depression, the holidays can have very different effects. Some are cheered up by the holidays and look forward to them. But for others, the holidays accentuate their depressive symptoms.

“When you’re depressed, it’s hard to be surrounded by people who are enjoying themselves,” Nelson said.

Even after a great holiday season, there’s still the post-holiday blues. Once the leftovers are thrown away, the Christmas trees come down and friends leave — it can be kind of a let down.

“It feels like a long road to spring,” Nelson said.

If you’re feeling down or depressed during the winter, talk to you doctor.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter at @GavinStern or email him at gavin.stern@scripps.com.