Battling the Holiday Blues and Winter Depression

by Richmond Scott, Outpatient Clinician, WCMHS

Winter came early to Vermont this year. It arrived with unseasonably cold and snowy conditions. For many Vermonters this was welcome news. Ski areas opened with fantastic conditions for skiers and riders, and folks were enjoying cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the woods. For others, the shortening days, cold weather, and gray skies were unwelcome bearers of lowered moods and feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, is an issue that many people grapple with. As much as 10 percent of the population in areas such as Vermont, those that lie in the northern latitudes, can be affected by it. Seasonal Affective Disorder expresses itself as major depression, which is something that many people grapple with throughout the year and is one of the leading mental concerns in America. Depression is generally defined as a period of two weeks or longer in which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure that results in clinically significant distress or impairment in social and occupational functioning. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 6.7 percent of all U.S. adults and 12.8 percent of adolescents suffer at least one episode of major depression.

It is hypothesized that SAD is triggered by the reduced amount of available sunlight, which causes alterations in circadian rhythms and disruptions in the neurotransmitters that help regulate emotions. A lowering of vitamin D levels resulting from a lack of sunlight is also something to be considered when addressing SAD. Low levels of vitamin D have been implicated in lowered mental functioning and might be linked to higher levels of depression. Vitamin D levels can be checked with a blood test administered by a physician if this is a possible concern.

Furthermore, for some people the bleakness of the winter days can trigger existential anxiety. Looking at the seasons through the lens of the cycle of life, winter represents the seasonal equivalence of death. The plant life has retreated, the leaves have fallen from the trees, and the world outside doesn’t feel welcoming and safe. This reality of winter can lead to experiences of heightened anxiety and increased feelings of sadness and worry.

Add to this the stress of the holiday season, and for many Vermonters, what appears a festive time of year can feel bleak and hopeless. Taking a walk down State Street in downtown Montpelier one will be greeted by wreathed light posts, festively decorated storefronts, and sparkling lights. People are out and about with family and friends, shopping, sharing a meal, or perhaps enjoying a hot cup of cocoa.

Some people find the holidays to be a time of warmth and community connection, and they revel in the season. However, for some people it can be a reminder that they don’t share in this community and family holiday experience. Perhaps they live alone, or their families are some distance away. “Human beings are inherently and biologically social beings and we tend to struggle when isolated. For many people the holiday season highlights this feeling of aloneness,” says Margaret Joyal, director of Washington County Mental Health’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services.

Also, financial stress can become elevated as families struggling to make ends meet might feel guilt at not being able to provide a materially abundant holiday experience for their loved ones. Perhaps difficult memories of past events that are linked to the holidays might get triggered and cause people to have hard emotional experiences around this time of year. There are also people who don’t celebrate Christmas and might feel left out and alienated by a holiday that is so encompassing of the mainstream American culture. Whatever the reason, for many people the holiday season can trigger strong feelings of loneliness and sadness.

It is important to remember that sadness and loneliness are natural human experiences. In the context of the holiday season and the winter season it is understandable why many people would find this a difficult time. Remember that if a person is having difficult feelings during the winter or around the holidays, it doesn’t mean they are clinically depressed. They might be experiencing the painful feeling of having the “winter blues” or the “holiday blues,” which are not clinical mental health diagnoses.

If you or someone you know is facing these issues, there are many things one can do to help reduce the difficult feelings associated with these experiences. “We’re social beings and connecting to other people, even strangers, can be helpful during difficult times such as the holiday season,” says psychotherapist Jessica Wright.

Volunteering to help at a community soup kitchen, helping with a toy drive, or getting involved with other community or church groups can help foster the felt sense of human and community connection. Reaching out to family and friends can feel challenging when anxious or lonely but can prove a valuable way to connect. Also, if you know someone who you feel might be struggling with depression, reaching out to them is an important and caring step.

If you think that you might be in need of additional support please contact Washington County Mental Health Services at (802) 229-0591.

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