Entering the new year means saying goodbye to the holiday season, a time typically regarded as the happiest time of the year. If you've struggled to transition back to business as usual after the holidays and found yourself experiencing some depression and anxiety, you, like many other people, may have a case of the post-holiday blues.
Depression rates are known to rise around the holidays; according to a 2014 survey by NAMI, 64% of people with mental illness reported that the holidays make their conditions worse. For many people, the transition after the holidays is not easy, although it is important to pay attention to the length of those feelings. The post-holiday blues can mimic symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as “the holiday blues” or “seasonal depression."
As we wrap up the first month of the new year, you should be feeling back to yourself. If not, it may be a sign that there is something else going on.
Seasonal affective disorder, also known in the DSM-5 as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, is a type of recurring major depressive disorder that begins and ends during specific seasons and times of the year. SAD impacts around 10 million Americans yearly, and like any other psychiatric disorder, severity varies from mild to debilitating depending on the individual. To qualify for the official DSM-5 diagnosis, individuals must have depressive symptoms that occur during the same seasons for at least two years, with their symptoms fully remitting at other times of the year.
Most individuals with SAD experience depressive symptoms throughout the fall and winter, with symptoms stopping during the spring and summer. Although a less frequent pattern, other individuals with SAD experience depressive symptoms throughout the spring and summer, with symptoms stopping during fall and winter. SAD can be particularly distressing as individuals learn to dread certain seasons, knowing their depressive symptoms will follow.
Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
It’s perfectly normal to have occasional “off" days when you feel a little down or in a funk. However, if you find yourself experiencing any of the above symptoms or having more “off" days than not, it may be helpful to seek out help from a mental health professional.
Researchers have proposed several causes of SAD, although the disorder itself is still not yet fully understood. SAD was first described by Norman E. Rosenthal and colleagues in 1984, making it a relatively new concept. Interestingly, Rosenthal's research was inspired by his own personal experiences of sadness that coincided with the winter months, which he proposed was caused by the decreased exposure to natural light. Lack of natural light can impact the body’s circadian rhythm and cause physiological changes in the brain. Disruptions in the production and uptake of neurotransmitters including serotonin, melatonin and vitamin D have been observed in individuals with SAD.
Research has found that some individuals are predisposed to and at a higher risk for developing SAD. Those at higher risk include women, those who live farther from the equator, individuals with a family history of depressive disorders (including bipolar disorder), younger people and those with occupations that have limited access to sunlight.
Treatment usually includes a combination of treatment options, including:
Unlike many other psychiatric disorders, SAD often has a typical, predictable trajectory. Seasonal depression most commonly coincides with fall and winter, which explains why the holiday months can be the toughest. Even though the holiday season has ended, these feelings can linger.
It’s okay to ask other people around you for help or to ask for extra space. Maybe this means spending more time with loved ones, being more intentional about your daily routine or being mindful of things that typically exacerbate your depression. Below are a few suggestions to help cope with depressive symptoms: