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Seasonal depression, anxiety can spoil the fun around Christmastime

The Herald-Dispatch - 12/27/2017

HUNTINGTON - The bright lights and happy tunes of the Christmas season often overlie the acute mental health issues the season can exacerbate - relating to both the anxiety sparked by the hurried stress of holiday preparations as well as the body's natural reaction to the darkest months of the year.

Commonly known as seasonal depression, seasonal affective disorder is a reaction to the shorter waking daylight hours in the winter months along with less opportunity to be outside. It is not, however, its own disorder, but may rather be a symptom of a greater clinical depression, explained Dr. Michael S. Stinnett, director of Dialectical Behavior Therapy Services in the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

"When the days begin to change and shorten in the wintertime, we see that hormones responsible for sleep and mood are changed also," Stinnett said.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are typically lack of energy and sleepiness, isolating oneself from others and experiencing a lack of interest in activities one would normally enjoy. Sufferers have also reported difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly.

These feelings are triggered internally by the changes in the body's internal clock caused by shortened days, Stinnett said. This contributes to a disruption in the production of melatonin - a hormone that promotes regular sleep - and serotonin, which elicits feelings of happiness. There is also evidence symptoms are worsened by a drop in Vitamin D intake, which the body produces from sunlight.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder may be remedied at home with a few lifestyle changes, Stinnett said. Those suffering should try to increase the time spent on fun activities, even if they don't want to at first, he advised, as well as remain physically and socially active and ensuring they receive enough sleep, but not too much. Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and eating a healthy, balanced diet, are beneficial as well.

"Do the things that used to bring you joy," Stinnett added.

Light therapy, a decades-old method in which artificial light is used to mimic sunlight, may also help sufferers as well as taking melatonin supplements, though Stinnett advised consulting with a physician first.

Should symptoms persist "more days than not" for a few weeks, Stinnett said a case of seasonal affective disorder may be a sign of a larger depressive disorder and should be consulted to a medical professional. Acute cases of seasonal depression typically clear up around March or April as the days lengthen and warm weather returns.

Holiday anxiety

While anxiety isn't an uncommon discomfort in the scope of daily life, these negative feelings can often be exacerbated during the Christmas season, Stinnett said. Concerns may arise from financial restraints and expectations imposed by others or oneself. Changes in routine and a constant rush may lead to fatigue, and the season may create nostalgia for loved ones who have passed away.

"When we take the normal day-to-day demands of life and add the particular constraints of the holiday season, it can definitely increase the feelings of anxiety that we already have," Stinnett said.

Anxiety can typically be alleviated at home by the same lifestyle changes applied to seasonal depression: proper diet, sleep and fun, relaxing activities. As the otherwise joyful season can sometimes feel like a blur, Stinnett suggested taking a break to live in the moment and refocus on the positives of Christmastime. Symptoms can be complicated by mood-altering substances like drugs or alcohol, he added, which he said should be enjoyed in moderation or avoided.

"These are helpful whether you're feeling anxious or depression or not," Stinnett said.

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter @BishopNash.


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