Many struggle with the holidays due to grief, loss or other issues that make it difficult for their days to be “merry and bright.” One of these is a condition called the “winter blues.”
“Not everyone experiences the winter months and the holidays the way that they are portrayed within our society,” explained Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in a Dec. 2 webinar titled, “Ask the Expert: Navigating the Winter & Holiday Blues.”
The winter blues, she noted, is a milder form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) caused by changes winter brings — shorter days, decreased sunlight and more isolation.
“Also, when it’s cold outside or dealing with 30 degrees weather, it’s hard to be physically active,” Crawford said. “You used to jump in your car and go to the gym or used to run outside. It’s hard to do that when it’s super cold.”
Decreased sunlight leads to less absorption of vitamin D, which affects levels of serotonin and melatonin, with those farther from the equator having a higher risk of deficiency.
If the winter blues/SAD is suspected as the cause of depression, Crawford encouraged taking the “Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire.”
“It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms so that you can talk to your provider about what it is that you’re experiencing, and what options are available for you,” Crawford explained.
Seek medical advice
Some research has shown that certain medications help, and she encouraged talking to a medical provider about medications as well as the possibility of a vitamin D deficiency.
“There are a lot of folks who are walking around with vitamin D deficiency, and they don’t even know it. Before I start medications for folks, I just want to make sure that there aren’t any underlying medical issues that are contributing to their mood,” Crawford said.
Light therapy also is a proven treatment with no known side effects. However, it can be expensive.
“Sitting in front of this light box for about 30 to 45 minutes a day is known to be associated with a reduction of some of the symptoms that can come along with seasonal affective disorder,” Crawford said.
Start the conversation
If there is a suspicion that family or a friend is struggling with depression, it can be difficult to start a conversation about those concerns, she acknowledged.
“One thing that you could do is when you are talking to this individual, share with them some of the objective things that you’ve noticed,” she said, noting specifics, such as arriving late, canceling activities at the last minute, losing weight or moving slower than usual.
Acknowledging that you’ve noticed these changes but not coming to conclusions can create space for that person to talk more, Crawford said.
“Then you can come alongside with that person and just say, ‘Man, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. How can I best help you and support you in this moment?’
“Oftentimes as friends and family we’re so quick to jump into problem-solving mode. ‘Alright, I’m going to call the therapist. I’m going to put you into this support group. I’m going to do X, Y and Z,’ when it’s possible that the person already looked into that.
“But the way in which you could support them in that moment is to listen to them and to listen to what it is that they’ve been going through and to validate that,” Crawford suggested.
Practical help, such as driving the person to a therapist, is another form of support, she said.
A complicating factor is the ongoing toll of COVID-19.
“Now where we thought that we were out of the woods, it seems like things are improving and then Delta came along and now we’re talking about Omicron and all these other variants,” Crawford said.
Concerning how to address COVID-19 concerns for holiday get-togethers, Crawford recommended setting up ground rules involving vaccination status and masks. She acknowledged how difficult it can be to set those boundaries, but the way to have some control is to establish ground rules early.
“You have to do what feels better with you and to make sure you listen to your gut,” Crawford urged.
For more information about this and other mental health conditions, go to www.NAMI.org.