To state the obvious, addressing any mental health or psychological problem is easier if you can figure out what is causing the problem. Sometimes you cannot do anything about the cause, but usually understanding the cause helps you figure out the solution.
For people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, or stress during this time of year, it can be difficult to sort out the causes. For some, the onset of late fall and early winter is accompanied by the onset of a seasonal mood disorder, also called seasonal depression. For others, a significant cause of feeling down or overwhelmed is stress associated with the holiday season. In each case, trying to identify the cause can help you figure out what to do to feel better.
Symptoms of Seasonal Mood Disorder: According to the American Psychiatric Association, 10-20% of people in America feel more depressed with the onset of winter. The symptoms for seasonal depression are exactly the same as those for major depression. As the name implies, the only difference with seasonal affective disorder is that the symptoms begin at roughly the same month for one or more consecutive years. Common symptoms include:
• persistently sad or irritable mood ( 2 or more consecutive weeks)
• pronounced changes in sleep, appetite, and energy
• difficulty thinking, concentrating, and remembering
• lack of interest in or pleasure from activities that were once enjoyed
• feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and emptiness
• recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
• persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
Symptoms of Acute Stress: People differ in terms of their feelings and behaviors when they are experiencing too much stress, but common signs of excessive stress include:
• Feeling anxious or worried much of the time.
• Feeling irritable or short tempered.
• Muscle tension, back problems, or increase in physical pain (jaws, neck)
• Stomach problems such as heartburn or acid stomach
Coping With Mood Disorder
• Find a way to get out and get going: Staying with your exercise routine, starting a new routine, or finding interesting activities that don’t depend on warm weather is very important. Staying put in your home often increases your depression.
• Exposure to Light: Taking advantage of natural sunlight is important. It may sound odd, but make sure you get outside on sunny days. Some people treat seasonal depression by sitting under bright fluorescent lamps for 30 or more minutes a day.
• Talk to a psychologist or other mental health professional: For both mild and more severe seasonal depression, talk therapy produces great benefits. Often our own patterns of thinking keep the depression going longer than needed. Counseling can help identify and change unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving.
• Medication: Some anti-depressant medications, such as Wellbutrin XL, have been FDA approved for treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Your psychiatrist or primary care doctor can discuss a range of medical treatment options.
Coping with Holiday Stress
• Set realistic expectations: Sometimes our stress at the holidays is the result of having expectations that are simply unrealistic. Check with someone you trust about whether your expectations of yourself are too lofty.
• Avoid unhealthy coping: If you can’t remove some of your stress, it is helpful not to make things worse. Try to avoid coping by things which are unhealthy such as excessive smoking, use of alcohol, or unhealthy eating.
• Pace Yourself and Take Care of Yourself: Just because you have a lot to do doesn’t mean that you can run at a full sprint for several weeks. Build time, even brief time, into your schedule to relax and rebuild.
For More Information:
American Psychological Association: www.apa.org/helpcenter
By- Dr. David Prescott
Behavioral Medicine Department at Eastern Maine Medical Center