ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Many people experience the joy and cheer brought on by the parties and family gatherings of the holiday season. However, for some people it can be a time of loneliness, sadness and stress. For others, the time right after the holidays may be when symptoms of a serious problem become most evident.
“Military service members may be prone to the blues around the holidays,” says Dr. Kimberly Buckingham, a clinical psychologist with the Defense Centers for Public Health–Aberdeen. “Especially when you are supposed to be spending more time with those you love, a permanent change of station, or PCS, and separation from family and friends may leave you feeling more sad or isolated during the holidays.”
Common holiday stressors are often related to—
- Relationships: Misunderstandings or conflict, and the inability to be with family and friends (loneliness)
- Finances: Overspending on gifts, travel, food and entertainment; commercialism, unrealistic expectations
- Physical demands: Decorating, cooking, shopping, social gatherings, house guests, lack of time
“Experiencing common holiday blues from these stressors may be confused with more serious seasonal depression, which will linger past the holiday season,” says Buckingham.
Difference between holiday blues and winter seasonal depression
Mild feelings of gloominess, stress and tiredness are common during or right after the winter holidays. These feelings are sometimes referred to as the “holiday blues” or “winter blues.” However, if more severe symptoms exist, seasonal affective disorder, a form of clinical depression known as SAD, may be present.
Holiday blues and winter SAD are different, mainly because holiday blues feelings are temporary and typically go away when the holiday season ends. SAD, or winter depression, often begins in the fall but continues through January and can last until spring. Symptoms of SAD are more severe than “the blues” and include depression, oversleeping, overeating or weight gain, social isolation and feelings of hopelessness.
According to the National Institutes of Health, SAD affects an estimated half a million people in the U.S. every year. It is largely due to a biochemical imbalance in the brain resulting from shorter daylight hours and lack of sunlight in the winter months, both of which impact a person’s circadian rhythms (internal body clock). In most regions of the U.S., the amount of natural light that reaches us decreases in winter. This is due partly to fewer daylight hours and partly to changing weather patterns. The lack of sunlight causes a reduction in the body’s serotonin production and an increase in the level of melatonin. These changes produce the symptoms associated with SAD.
Symptoms of SAD
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Disturbed/uneasy sleep
- Regularly occurring symptoms of depression during the fall or winter months
- Includes loss of feelings
- Pulling away from friends and family
- Avoiding social situations
- Extreme fluctuations in mood
- Increase in PMS symptoms in women
- Increased drinking
- Increased craving for sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods
Loss of libido
Weakened immune system
What can you do?
Knowing the difference between a case of the winter blues and symptoms of depression can help you identify coping skills and know when to seek behavioral health support.
“To ease the loneliness, you can find ways to connect by reaching out to battle buddies or increased video chatting with family and friends who are at a distance,” says Buckingham.
Buckingham also emphasizes it is important to celebrate safely. “Be aware of how you are trying to celebrate or de-stress. Indulging in alcohol overuse can lead to not thinking clearly and can increase negative thinking and sad feelings. Finding healthy ways to proactively manage stress can be as simple as maintaining your daily routines, exercising, healthy eating, or planning a nature walk with a friend.”
The primary treatment for SAD is light therapy, particularly the use of light boxes with fluorescent lights that make up for the lack of available natural light during the darker months. Using a light box consistently from autumn to spring, in the mornings, and for a duration of 30–45 minutes daily is the general recommendation for best results.
Many health care practitioners propose starting light therapy in the fall. According to the American Psychological Association, light therapy has also been found to work well when used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy and/or the use of antidepressants.
Additional Tips for Coping with SAD
- Rearrange workspaces and work near a window, or set up bright lights in your work area.
- Journal/keep a daily log noting weather conditions, energy levels, moods, appetite/weight, sleep times and activities.
- Get as much light as possible and avoid dark environments during daylight hours.
- Allow natural light to shine through open windows and doors when temperatures are moderate.
- Exercise daily – outdoors when possible.
- Make time for relaxation: meditation or guided imagery, yoga, reading, deep breathing, listening to music.
- Eat healthy, regular meals.
- When possible, avoid staying up late, which disrupts your sleep schedule and biological clock.
- Be aware of cold outside temperatures, and dress to conserve energy and warmth.
- Connect with counseling services, such as these:
- Military OneSource provides confidential nonmedical counseling for service members and their loved ones, along with resources and support to address a variety of issues and build important skills to tackle life's challenges.
- Military and Family Life Counselors (MFLC) are licensed mental health professionals who provide situational, problem-solving consultations. No written records are kept, and the counseling is free to service members and their families.
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