The holidays can be the best of times and the worst of times. Some of us find Christmas shopping, social gatherings, and winter activities delightful; however, for others, the holidays bring about a spell of melancholia. When discussing seasonal depression during the holidays, it is important to differentiate between the “holiday blues” and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). A common misconception is that the two terms describe the same condition of stress and low spirits that many people experience during the winter months. While the holiday blues often stem from social commitments and financial stressors related to the season, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mental health issue which requires treatment.

Many people experience the “holiday blues,” which are feelings of sadness or anxiety during the winter. Celebrations like Christmas are highly commercialized; therefore, there is often financial pressure to spend money on family, friends and acquaintances. Furthermore, social gatherings brought about during the season may be uncomfortable due to family conflict, or sorrowful due to the loss of a loved one. Psychologists suggest that increased levels of self-reflection brought about by time off from school or work can lead to dissatisfaction with one’s life. This dissatisfaction is further heightened when we compare ourselves to others who appear to have things better off in comparison to us.

When the holiday blues persist for several winters, and are accompanied by physiological and psychological changes, Seasonal Affective Disorder may be to blame. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder display symptoms that are similar, or identical to clinical depression such as fatigue, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, and even thoughts of suicide. The onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder is usually at the beginning of the winter months, with remission occurring in early spring. Less commonly, some people may experience depressive symptoms throughout the summer months, with remission in early fall.

Statistics about the prevalence of Seasonal Affective Disorder are still disputed; however, the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO) estimates that two to six per cent of Canadians are affected, and another 15 per cent have a milder form. Interestingly, the prevalence of SAD in North America is greater at higher latitudes. Young adults and women seem to be particularly vulnerable parties.

Research on what leads to SAD is ongoing, but a number of causes have been identified such as neurotransmitters, hormones, and circadian rhythm irregularities during seasonal changes. During the winter months, people have less exposure to sunlight, which may cause a decrease in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood. For this reason, it can be supposed that light therapy ought to be effective for treating SAD. This type of therapy consists of prescribed daily exposure to a light box containing fluorescent bulbs that mimic natural daylight. Other treatments include Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), drugs typically prescribed for major depression that allow serotonin to be active for longer periods. Ultimately, it is important to consult a doctor if you are displaying any or all of the symptoms mentioned earlier so that an appropriate treatment plan can be recommended.

How about those of us who, upon experiencing the holiday blues, desire to seek ways to remedy them in more holistic ways? There are several strategies we can implement in order to manage those negative feelings, such as spending time with family and friends, doing volunteer or charity work, connecting with your religious or spiritual community, and focusing in on the positive things in our life. Remembering to visit our elderly relatives when we can is also important, because the holidays can be an especially tough time for them, seeing as they have a significant amount of experiences to reflect on. Although there are plenty of ways to manage emotional downturns, it is key to remember that they are common, and that signs of emotional drops do not automatically warrant a remedy. In essence, it is perfectly human to feel sad.

Students at UTSC also have a lot to offer in advice for dealing with the holiday blues. John Lewis*, a second-year health studies student says that they do not experience the Holiday Blues, but offers some tips for people who do. Lewis shares, “I find that keeping a journal helps when you’re feeling sad[ helps] you figure out why you are feeling that way. Sometimes, there isn’t a particular reason; it’s just a mood you’re in. Find the time to focus on yourself, eat comfort food, do a hobby that you like, and talk to the people that you care about.”

Karen Jones*, a fourth-year neuroscience student, believes that it is important to be forgiving towards others and yourself during the holiday season. “I feel that we are sometimes too hard on ourselves during the holidays–we reflect on the past year and wish we had done things differently. I remind myself to be satisfied with who I am and be grateful for the people in my life.”

Finally, psychologists Rosemary Sword and Philip Zimbardo offer some advice: “The first thing is to embrace the joyous, compassionate, giving aspect of the season… And when you find the holiday blues coming on, remember that these feelings are temporary; you’ll get through it.”

* Interviewee’s identity held upon request