The Season of More has begun. More food. More parties. More shopping. More family time. More traditions. More pressure. More stress. More drinking. More opportunities to drink. More opportunities to do drugs. More chances for accidents.
The expectation for the holidays to be a time of overwhelming joy, cheer and happiness was set long ago and is manifested today in pop culture through movies, advertisements, TV specials and online content.
It’s evident in the twinkling lights on houses and as we walk through winter wonderlands in grocery stores. It’s on the holiday cards that inundate our mailboxes and it can be heard in the songs played on the radio and hummed by those around us.
But the reality is many people feel less than festive this time of year.
“Since it’s not something we can see and touch, it’s easy to marginalize some of the emotional distress that we feel around the holidays or any time of year,” said Theresa Fawvor, LCSW, CPHQ, CPHRM, associate vice president of Memorial Hermann Behavioral Services.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the Holiday Blues, often mischaracterized as interchangeable, are two contributors in making people feel like this is not the most wonderful time of the year.
Also contradictory to this being the “hap-happiest season of all” is the increase in binge-drinking and alcohol-related highway deaths during the holiday season. Alcohol-related highway deaths spike during Thanksgiving (40 percent), Christmas (37 percent) and New Year’s (58 percent) compared to the rest of the year (31 percent), according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
“There does tend to be an increase in stress during the holidays, which causes people who don’t have a drinking problem to maybe have two glasses of wine instead of one,” says Jane Barnes, LCDC, CRPS, a chemical dependency counselor and associate vice president of Operations at Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC). “Those who do tend to drink are going to more parties and drinking more.”
SAD vs. the Holiday Blues
People can experience both SAD and the Holiday Blues this time of year, but the two conditions have definite differences.
The Holiday Blues are directly tied to the numerous family, financial, social and emotional stressors that present themselves during the holiday season and typically go away once the holiday season is over.
“There’s a lot of pressure during the holidays,” Barnes says. “There’s pressure to be happy. There are financial stressors because if you’re a parent, all your kids want presents. Even if you’re not a parent, you want to buy things for your friends, family and co-workers.”
On the other hand, SAD is a clinically-diagnosed depressive disorder directly related to variations in sunlight. Those with SAD experience symptoms that resemble depression, which can include anxiety, irritability, fatigue, sadness, loss of libido, overeating, mood swings, sleep problems and thoughts of suicide. These symptoms coincide with shorter periods of sunlight and the changing of the seasons, most commonly with the onset of the winter months, and subside the rest of the year. The disorder is diagnosed after two or more winters with persistent symptoms.
“One of the luxuries of living in the South is wonderful weather nine to ten months of the year,” Fawvor said. “But then all of a sudden, you go home from work and there is no sunlight to do the things you normally do. There’s an adjustment that needs to be made.”
Some of that adjustment is tied to melatonin, a hormone that is produced faster in the dark. Melatonin helps regulate sleep patterns and circadian rhythm but has been linked to depression when it is overproduced.
SAD is generally more prevalent in areas further from the equator but that doesn’t exclude people who live in cities like Houston. Though the Bayou City receives more than 200 total days with sun per year, there is a steady decline in days of sunlight each month from October (20) to February (12).
If a person goes into work early and stays past 5 o’clock following Daylight Saving Time in November, they are likely to see minimal sunlight in the winter months.
“When the days are shorter, you can’t do the things you usually do because the environment isn’t the same,” Fawvor says. “Then people start to feel sad.”
Keeping the Happy in Your Holidays
Whether it’s you or someone you know who is experiencing SAD or the Holiday Blues, or battling alcohol or drug addiction during the holidays, Fawvor and Barnes recommend reaching out to a support system be the first step.
While Fawvor strongly suggests seeking professional help if someone suspects they have SAD, and absolutely if suicidal thoughts present themselves, speaking to family members should also be a priority.
“There is a genetic component to depressive disorders,” Fawvor says. “You’re more likely to be at risk for developing this disorder if someone else in your family has been diagnosed or has a history of it.”
In addition to seeking professional help, ways of managing SAD include light therapy, taking advantage of opportunities to spend time outdoors when the sun is out, eating healthy, spending time with positive support systems like friends and family, and staying active.
A mental health inventory should also be taken to address overall wellbeing, according to Fawvor. “It’s very important to make sure we’re taking a mental health inventory and seeking the help of others when we’re not feeling too good,” Fawvor says. “There are professionals in the community who can help.”
Still Not Sure It’s SAD or the Holiday Blues?
Remember that people with the Holiday Blues experience immediate relief when the holidays end. The two can be interconnected but the symptoms of SAD don’t end when the holidays do.
Helping Addicts and Alcoholics Keep on the Path of Recovery
The Season of More should include spending more time addressing alcohol or drug-related issues, Barnes said.
“For the addict or the alcoholic, we really encourage them to do twice as much work as they were doing before to stay on the path of recovery,” Barnes said.
This may include going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings before they go to the family get-together or bringing a sponsor or sober friend to the party if they have to go. If it’s a high-risk situation, don’t go. If you do have to go, make sure to have phone numbers for sober friends. Make sure you have a way to leave if you’re uncomfortable.
For the person who doesn’t have an alcohol problem, remember the basics about having a sober driver available and drinking in moderation.
“You don’t have to be alone,” Barnes said. “There are resources out there. Don’t isolate yourself and remember that the spirit of the holiday is about finding peace for you and giving to others.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing SAD or struggling with recovery, ask for help. For more information on the Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC), visit www.parc.memorialhermann.org
Memorial Hermann also offers Mental Health Crisis Clinics.These clinics provide outpatient mental health services for individuals in crisis situations or those unable to follow up with their regular outpatient mental health care provider.