Around the holidays, there seems to be a mix of emotions. There are those people who are excited, happy and all around in a better mood. Then there are those who feel a little blue. In fact, you probably already know the term for those feelings: seasonal depression.
What You Should Know About Seasonal Depression
Lauren Gilland, a licensed counselor with Taylor Counseling Group in Dallas, says seasonal depression pops up a lot around this time due to daylight hours being shorter. (Thanks, Earth’s rotation.)
She says this issue tends to start around October and often worsens throughout the fall and winter months, but it can start to turn around in March. “This of course can vary based on how close or far away you are from the equator and which hemisphere you live in,” she adds.
But how do you know if this is something you’re experiencing? Gilland says symptoms of seasonal depression mimic that of typical depression, such as low mood with feelings of sadness or emptiness, decreased interest in activities you enjoy, lack of motivation, changes in appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, restlessness, mental fog, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, excessive guilt, difficulty focusing, feeling easily agitated or irritable and, in severe cases, even thoughts of death or suicide.
And just like typical depression, seasonal depression can affect anyone.
But your location can make a difference. “Individuals living in areas where there are diminished hours of daylight (such as Alaska) or where the weather often inhibits the sunlight (such as Oregon and Washington state) are more likely to experience symptoms of seasonal depression,” Gilland notes.
Your family medical history can also be at play. “If you have a family history of seasonal depression or mood disorders, you may be more likely to experience seasonal depression at some point in your life; and if you’ve experienced seasonal depression, general depression or other mental illness in the past, you are more likely to experience it again,” she says.
This year, we’re also combatting the anxiety and stressors that have come along with COVID.
Gilland says because of that, it’s important for those who have experienced seasonal depression in the past to be especially mindful of their mood this year. “Due to COVID, most people are experiencing significantly higher levels of stress, which can exacerbate symptoms,” she says. “Know what your early signs of seasonal depression are based on what you’ve experienced in previous years. Maintain a healthy lifestyle around sleep, exercise, diet and self-care, and begin using helpful coping skills and resources at the first sign of symptoms.”
But just because there’s been a lot of stress with the pandemic and other societal issues this year, Gilland doesn’t necessarily expect to see more cases; she does believe mental health professionals may possibly see cases earlier. “So far, what I have seen, is that those who have a history of seasonal depression are experiencing symptoms more quickly and more severely in previous years.”
Combat Seasonal Depression
So what are some ways to combat seasonal depression? Gilland recommends taking these actions:
Get adequate and consistent sleep. “It is essential to maintain a healthy mood,” she says. “Make sure to get 8–10 hours of sleep every night. In an ideal world, you should go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.”
Exercise. Exercise helps the body to burn off stress and allows the release of endorphins that lift the mood and improve sleep quality. Gilland suggests getting 30 minutes of exercise at least five times a week.
Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. “As more research comes out on factors that impact mental health, we are learning that diet and gut health have a powerful impact on mood because many of our neurotransmitters are made and reside in the gut,” she notes.
Meditate or practice mindfulness exercises regularly. “Mindfulness and meditation are practices in which you redirect your mind to fully attend to something in the present moment—releasing you during that time from negative emotions about the past or future, slowing your respiration and heart rate and allowing your mood to lift or stabilize,” Gilland says. “Apps such as Headspace and Calm are great resources for guided mediations and mindfulness exercises. I recommended starting with at least 5–15 minutes a day.”
Do small things you enjoy often. “As insignificant as this may seem, the self-care of enjoying the little things allows us to shift our attention from all the hustle and bustle, stresses and responsibilities of daily life and experience a simple joy in the present moment,” she says. “What this looks like can vary dramatically from person to person; for some, it’s a cup of tea or hot bath in the evening, for others it may be going for a walk, playing with a pet, chatting on the phone with someone you love, or making time for a favorite hobby—anything that reenergizes or inspires you.”
But just for discussion’s sake, let’s say the above actions don’t really work all that well for you. When should you seek professional help? Gilland recommends going to a professional when your mood is so low that you lack the motivation to engage in activities that help to improve and stabilize your well-being. “You should also seek help if you are already practicing those activities regularly but are still struggling with symptoms of depression.”
Taylor Counseling Group provides a wide range of services to help clients from age 5 through late adult life. With locations across the state of Texas, the group specializes in individual counseling, couples counseling, family counseling and play therapy services. If you’re interested in scheduling a session or need more information, visit the group’s website at taylorcounselinggroup.com.
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