Holiday Stress and “Winter Blues”

Having recently moved both our home and my counseling practice from Monmouth to Maupin, I thought that the new year might be a good time to introduce a maybe-regular new column in the WamPinRock, for the purpose of sharing some of the information on mental, emotional, and behavioral health topics which might be of interest to members of my new community. And while “holiday stress” and “winter blues” are phrases that get tossed around so much that they have lost much of their meaning, they refer to something very real this time of year, and so seemed like a good topics to focus on in this first column.

During this first holiday season in Maupin for my husband and I, lights ablaze on the Christmas tree and the winter fog sometimes hanging low in the canyon all through the short days, I find myself thinking of how much that particular pairing of darkness and light reflects the mixed emotions and moods that many people experience during, and about, this time of year. While Christmas may represent happy memories and the joys of gathering with family and friends, the anticipation and preparations can be stressful also!

Even more difficult for many are the ways in which the winter holidays can be a painful reminder of major losses. For those who have lost loved ones in the past year to death, relocation or estrangement, this may be the first holiday season without that person present, with the feelings of sadness that that “first” brings. For others, the annual holiday season itself is forever associated with the anniversary of the death of a family member or friend, however long ago. And if you wonder if it only seems as though more people die during the holidays than at other times of year, several studies have found evidence to support this impression, including a large study conducted by the University of California which found that between 3% and 9% of all annual deaths in the U.S. occur during the weeks of Christmas and New Years.

There are also very real physiological effects of light deprivation that occurs in northern latitudes especially, which have psychological consequences. Call it “cabin fever,” “winter blues,” or “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (“S.A.D.”), the related psychological symptoms are thought to be caused by the ways in which the reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter both result in a decrease of serotonin in the brain, and in an imbalance of melatonin—brain chemicals which play a key role in determining both our sleep patterns and moods. Irritability, fatigue, tearfulness, hypersensitivity, oversleeping, a general feeling of “heaviness,” carbohydrate-craving and weight gain are common symptoms, which tend to be the most severe in people with a history of depression.

So what are some ways to address the physical and psychological symptoms of holiday stress and of “winter blues”? Here’s are my top ten strategies, including many that the Mayo Clinic recommends:

 1) Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight or add skylights to your home. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.

 2) Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch outdoors, or take short breaks outside to sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.

3) Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity (such as yoga and Pilates) help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase seasonal depression symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too, which can lift your mood.

4) If you take medication for depression or another mood condition, it is especially important that you take these as directed. If they seem less effective during the winter, don’t stop taking them; instead, consult your prescriber to have them adjusted as necessary.

5) Use complementary medicine approaches. Chiropractic adjustment, acupuncture, massage and Reiki (among other techniques) can do much to help reduce pain (and chronic pain is a major contributor to depression), and to balance the body in ways which support mood balance in turn.

6) If you have been received counseling, it is especially important to continue during this time, and to consider adding counseling to your self-care regimen if you haven’t.

7) Make healthy choices for meals and snacks, and be mindful about your use of alcohol, since alcohol is itself a depressant.

8) Stay connected to other people. If you are an extravert, socialize. If you are an introvert, long spells of face-to-face socializing may drain energy instead of increasing it, so focus on staying connected to others through phone-calls, social media, or other means. Focused gatherings such as meditation or prayer groups, 12-step groups, and worship services can be an important way for both introverts and extraverts to experience connection and receive support. For the introvert, solitude helps, but isolation does not!

9) If possible, take winter vacations in sunny, southern-latitude locations where the days are longer.

10) Laugh much, sing often! Humor and music are two of the most powerful depression-busters we know, for their ability to release endorphins (the brain chemicals connected with a sense of well-being).

And remember: while we have a lot of winter still ahead of us, the passing of the winter solstice reminds us that the light has actually already begun its return, so it just gets better from here!