By: Dr. Frank Moncher
The holidays for most are filled with joyous celebrations and fond memories, but for a significant number of our family members and friends, there is sadly a struggle to experience good cheer and optimism for a variety of reasons. For some, the “holiday blues” are tied directly to particular circumstances. Perhaps there are unavoidable separations from loved ones due to military deployment or other job responsibilities—believe it or not, my eldest brother’s gig as “Santa” takes him out of state from Turkey Day ‘til Christmas Eve. For others, the pain comes from familial estrangement, e.g., ruptures to once-close family relations through conflict or divorce; for still others, family connections from the past carry painful memories which seem to be best avoided and not rekindled. While these latter circumstances may be difficult, the holidays provide an opportunity for reaching out to others and perhaps to shift the course of relationships for the better (see last year’s holiday blast).
As diverse as they are, however, what all of these circumstances have in common is that, from the sufferer’s perspective, the cause of suffering is known. These sufferers know why they suffer and what would be necessary to relieve that suffering—whether or not it is readily achievable. That knowledge is not always the case, however.
Some remain at a loss for explaining the reasons behind their sinking into the depths during what they expect to be (cue Andy Williams) “…the most wonderful time of the year.” One school of thought, which likely applies to many in this group, is that they are victims of their own expectations and choices. The literature suggests that comparing one’s life events with those of others, especially when one anticipates emotional highs as is common in the holiday season, presents a risk for major disappointments if the reality does not measure up. Therefore, it is natural to experience a let-down or fall victim to the trap of comparing oneself to others, when it is perceived that everyone around is having all of “those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings, when friends come to call…”—and you are not. One medical website includes unrealistic expectations in a list of stressors (including financial, over-commercialization, increased commitments and demands on time, among others), all of which can contribute to the holiday blues.
Still, for others, there is yet another possible cause; one that is subtle and can stay even more frustratingly hidden.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a bona fide medical condition that is thought to be caused by changes in particular people’s brain chemistry during times of decreased exposure to natural sunlight. Hence, the coincidence with the beloved winter holidays of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years’ Day. For people with SAD, the dislike of dark, shortened days is severe, and persists even after the holiday season, and the potential trials above, have passed. he exact cause of SAD is unknown, but scientists suggest that changes in levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter and/or melatonin (a hormone) may be the culprits. The disorder afflicts as much as 5 percent of the population. It usually begins in early adulthood, is more common in women than men, and is more common in the northern latitudes. SAD can have varied effects on people, ranging from mild symptoms which are uncomfortable but tolerable to severe symptoms which impact a person’s ability to work and relate with others. Symptoms can include tiredness, fatigue, crying spells, irritability, concentration problems, insomnia, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and overeating. As you can see, one could easily attribute these symptoms to anything from overwork, seasonal stress, to lingering cold and flu—which makes diagnosing SAD all the more difficult.
Once properly diagnosed, however, treatments are available. Doctors recommend various lifestyle and self-care interventions such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and spending more time outdoors in natural light, particularly in the morning. If symptoms are more severe, anti-depressant medications (such as SSRIs) and Light Therapy (full-spectrum light boxes are commercially available) have been shown to be effective. In addition, talk therapy and counseling are useful adjuncts in helping people cope with symptoms.
So, this “most wonderful time of the year” can be frustratingly difficult for those afflicted with this particular struggle, even when “loved ones are near.” In fact, for those suffering from SAD, the inclination to be self-critical and contentious may leave loved ones feeling a little “too near.” Yet, no one need feel helpless or alone. Being evaluated is the first step, and educating those around you can help. Remember, one of the best anti-depressants, for those who suffer and for those who love them, remains loving, supportive, caring relationships. Whatever the cause of distress, these are never out of season.
Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.