For most of us, the holidays bring excitement and joy as we prepare to celebrate traditions and enjoy great food with family and friends. But some folks have a hard time getting in the spirit. As the days get darker earlier, as many as nine percent of the population may suffer from a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Depending on geographic location and ethnic background, you may be at greater risk. Interestingly, studies have found that as many as 20 percent of Irish descendents suffer from SAD, compared to other populations.
People affected by SAD can experience symptoms that may mimic those of mild to major depression. These include feeling unhappy, sleeping too much, feeling fatigued, having difficulty concentrating, and gaining weight. Some people may have such severe symptoms that they may require hospitalization.
Prevention is key! While some people do need medication, symptoms are often treatable if caught early. Here are a few suggestions to try if you notice that you are feeling more depressed than usual. However, if you experience unusual thoughts or idea and feel like you want to hurt yourself or someone else, seek immediate professional help.
GET IN TOUCH WITH NATURE
• Get adequate rest. When the time change happens, some people are more affected than others. If you don’t already get adequate rest, take this as an opportunity to get to bed earlier. During the summer months, it’s often hard to wind down and get to bed when it stays light until 9 p.m. Now, however, you can get to bed early and get lots of rest.
• Maintain your usual schedule. It is tempting to go to bed late and sleep in on the weekends. When you are feeling down and out of sorts, sticking to a regular schedule will help you maintain balance.
• Exercise. If you don’t exercise, now is the time to start. Even if you just commit to taking a 15-minute walk on your lunch break each day. Something is better than nothing. If you have a desk job or sit for most of the day, this is more important for your health than you know. Try to get up in the morning, do a few minutes of stretching, take a walk at lunch. and then before or after dinner get in another 15 minute walk. Yes it’s chilly, and yes, you will survive. If you have a dog, kids, or partner, take them along. They need exercise, too!
• Get outside in the sunlight. We’ve all heard that too much sun exposure is bad for you, but did you know that not enough sun is also bad for you? We need the sunlight to help us absorb Vitamin D. This is essential not only for bone health but also for mood balance.
• Cut back. You know what you’re doing. Should I say more?
• Drink more water instead. No excuses. You know that this one is a given.
• Socialize. When we feel down, blue, tired, or depressed, we have a tendency to go home and crawl into bed. When we do that, everything else gets neglected. Yes, sometimes we need rest, but other times you’ll feel better if you make yourself go out and be with people. Don’t neglect the ones that you love. Life is short. Find time to be with your partner, your kids, your family, your friends, your co-workers. Just do it. By the time you get there, you’ll be glad you did, and if not, you can always leave.
• Get a hobby. Keep yourself busy with something. Everyone needs rest, but too much rest and we become stagnant.
• Sex. Having sex with a partner or by yourself is not only a great stress relief, it is also good for you. When we achieve orgasm, the body releases oxytocin which not only makes us feel good, it reduces pain and makes us feel closer to our partner, in addition to a lot of other great health benefits. So yeah, I know, you’re tired, but it’s good for you!
GET HELP IF YOU NEED IT
Now on to suggestions for activities you should avoid:
• Don’t isolate yourself. It may be tempting to crawl under the covers, call into work, and turn off your phone. If you need help, get it.
• Don’t mix drugs and alcohol. Even prescription and over-the-counter drugs can have potential interactions with each other and interactions with alcohol. People have a tendency to want to feel better by whatever means necessary. Medications like Xanax, Clozapine, and others in the class of benzodiazepines often used for anxiety; and medications like Ambien used for sleep; as well as medication used for pain management like Lortab can cause folks to have serious side effects. Some people have reported committing serious crimes while being in a trance-like state (like sleep walking), having no memory for days, and having manic like symptoms—extreme irritability and recklessness. Others have even lost touch with reality and become psychotic. Depending on what you mix together, you could even die.
• Don’t make big decisions. When you’re not feeling yourself, this is not the time to decide to change jobs, move to a different town, sell your house, make a major purchase, max out our credit cards, buy yourself happy with luxury purchases, go on expensive vacations, leave your husband, wife, long-term partner, call up that ex, rekindle that romance on Facebook, get a tattoo, decide to have another baby, get a dog/cat/pet, dye your hair black, buy that sports car you’ve always wanted or anything else that would make someone close to you say, “Woah…wait a minute!!” I know you think it will make you feel better, but what happens in a few months when you do actually feel better and you get that credit card bill in the mail or realize that you’ve left the person that made you smile even though the way they chewed their food was slightly irritating?
• Don’t hold back from your provider. Tell your health provider the whole truth—especially if you drink. It’s not helpful if you hold back. Even if you think it’s unimportant, embarrassing, ridiculous, that you are being a bother, that everyone goes “through this”—whatever it is, just say it. You’ll feel better, and your provider can suggest available tools to help.
• If you have someone at home, bring him or her with you to your appointment. Yes, privacy is important, but when you are sick, you are often unaware of how sick you really are. Collateral information from people around you may be important in helping your health professional understand what’s going on with you, make the correct diagnosis, and decide on the proper course of treatment. In addition, when you aren’t feeling well, it may be difficult for you to understand all of the instructions, and you may want someone there who can help you recall the information given to you during your appointment.
• Don’t be too hard on yourself. Treat yourself at least as nicely as you would strangers that you meet in your daily activities.
• Don’t do it alone. Enough with the “shouldn’t’s,” “musts,” “can’t’s” Things will get done when they get done if you have a partner at home or kids. Ask for help.
• Professional assistance. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help early if you feel like your symptoms are worse than you’ve experienced before, aren’t getting better, are unusual, or you feel like you are going to hurt yourself or someone else. If you have insurance, you can call the number on the back for assistance with finding someone, look on the Psychology Today Therapist Directory, check your phone book, or call your family doctor. If you need immediate help go to your nearest community mental health clinic, hospital emergency room, or call 911.
• Call a mental health professional. Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) are accessible in your community and have a master’s degree or doctorate degree, have completed a supervised 3000-hour residency, and pass a state licensing exam. LPCs are licensed to diagnose and treat mental health disorders and problems that occur within individuals, children, families, and couples across the lifespan and work in a variety of settings. LPCs are qualified to perform psychological testing and assessments and specialize in a variety of disorders such as sexuality, marriage and family, depression and anxiety, military issues, etc.
Finally, there’s a lot to be said for thinking positive. Mahatma Ghandi said once, “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” Think positive thoughts and count your blessings, and before long, you’ll greet each new day with a smile.
Rayne Turner is a Licensed Professional Counselor and maintains an active practice in Hampton Roads. Her expertise includes working with youth, couples and families.