Melancholidays

The holiday season inspires feelings of euphoria and nostalgia in some people – and feelings of dread, panic, and stress in others. How can these annual events cause such diverse responses in people? The months leading up to and following the celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, and other holiday traditions can be exhausting to our physical and mental health. How you respond to that exhaustion makes all the difference.

While some people can grin and bear it, the holiday rush leaves other folks feeling sad, overwhelmed, and cheerless, emotions that can become all the more difficult with all the cheer and celebration going on around them.

The reasons for seasonal blues are as varied as the people who go through it.

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is one culprit, though it has more to do with decreased exposure to sunlight than it has to do with holiday-specific emotions. When someone experiences SAD, they have symptoms similar to clinical depression: fatigue, irritability, changes in appetite, and feelings of anxiety and despair.
  • SAD is more common in women than in men, and in those living farther north, where there's less daylight during the winter. For example, those who live in Alaska may be more likely to develop SAD than those who live in Florida.
  • People with depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental disorders (e.g., eating disorder, panic disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) may be more likely to develop SAD.
  • For people whose blues are linked specifically to the holidays, the reasons are often tied to stress. Our expectations of ourselves during the holidays are high: find the perfect gifts for everyone without breaking the bank; attend or organize festive parties and get-togethers; travel to see friends and family (and deal with those friends and family and all the issues that go along with that!).
  • Sometimes holiday blues are connected to emotions of loss or grief – death of loved ones, a move that distances us from family and friends, or a divorce or other major life changes may make the holiday season difficult.
  • There are people, too, who feel disconnected from the holiday completely. They may hold different religious or ideological beliefs. Someone who is left out of the prevailing holidays may feel sad or lonely. Someone who doesn't subscribe to the commercialism and consumerism of the holidays, or who had bad experiences with the holidays during their childhood may feel down during the season as well.

The cause of seasonal affective disorder is not clear, but there have been some plausible findings. Researchers have suggested that people with SAD have decreased serotonin and increased melatonin levels in the winter. Another finding was low vitamin D levels in people with SAD. Therefore, the solutions are varied, too.

Each individual will need to find their own way of coping with their emotions around the holidays. For some, the symptoms and complications may be mild and temporary. For others, the feelings may linger, worsen, or aggravate an existing condition.

Read "6 ways to beat the holiday blues" for a few ideas for finding a little joy in spite of the holiday blues...

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