Holiday Unhappiness: Understanding Seasonal Mood Disorders

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Seasonal Affective Disorder Likely Tied to Existing Condition

sad woman during holidaysGloomy weather and earlier sunsets during the holidays can cause some people to feel blue. But how do you know if your sadness is related to the dreary weather, or something else?

Newest information released by the American Psychiatric Association about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) shows that SAD may be linked to existing mood disorders that get worse during certain seasons.

“The term ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ has recently been abandoned in clinical practice guides,’” said Seton psychiatrist Samuel Collier, MD. “This is because seasonal mood problems are likely a reflection of an underlying mood disorder like major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder that worsens in a seasonal pattern.” Ascension Seton is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

“Mood disorders” is a term broadly describing all types of depression and bipolar disorders.

Seasons of Sadness

In most cases, mood disorder patterns begin in the fall or winter and end in the spring, Collier said. In rare cases, it can happen in the summer. You may have a seasonal mood pattern if you experience symptoms of depression beginning at a specific time of year.

Collier, who is also an assistant professor at Dell Medical School, said people with depression usually experience multiple symptoms for at least two weeks. It’s tough to tell the difference between symptoms that occur in a seasonal pattern and symptoms that occur at other times. Symptoms of depression occur together in a cluster for a minimum of two weeks and cause functional impairment.

Depression symptoms include:

  • Constant sadness
  • Changes in sleep or eating habits
  • Feeling tired or lethargic
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of ability to enjoy activities that were previously enjoyable
  • In severe cases, thoughts of suicide

According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression affects an estimated one in 15 adults, and is serious illness affecting the way you think and act.

Holiday Blues

It’s common for some people to feel sad during the holidays but if you feel depressed after they are over, it may mean something more serious.

“Clinicians have to be careful to delineate what someone means when they say they are depressed,” Collier said. “This can imply a more casual way of expressing displeasure or sadness in addition to challenging or unfortunate circumstances. But it can also imply a more serious psychiatric syndrome that needs careful evaluation and treatment.”

If you continue to feel sad after the holidays over, check in with your doctor or psychiatrist. Suicidal thinking is never normal and is very serious.

Dealing with Depression

If you think you might be depressed, start by talking to your doctor or psychiatrist to receive a thorough exam.

Collier said it’s important to know the difference between normal reactions to difficult circumstances and more serious mood disorders. A therapist can help you figure out what’s going on and how to proceed with treatment.

Maintaining exercise and sleep routines, and spending time with supportive friends and family can help improve your mood. Overeating or consuming alcohol can contribute to depression.

If you only have trouble with depression symptoms during the winter months and don’t have other mood disorders, light therapy may help by emitting bright artificial light.

To be effective, you have to use a lightbox for a specific period of time. But it doesn’t work for everyone, so talk to your doctor to see if light therapy is for you.