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Depression During the Holidays

December 01, 2017

What is seasonal affective disorder?

While many people refer to it as the “winter blues,” seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a subtype of depression affecting 10 million Americans every year.2 It is characterized by recurring depressive episodes that take place around the same time every year. While some cases of SAD can arise during the spring and summer, most cases occur during the fall and winter.


The exact cause for seasonal affective disorder is not certain. Some researchers attribute it to reduced exposure to sunlight in the fall and winter months. This may affect serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Lower levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. Reduced sunlight may also activate increased levels of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Melatonin is produced more in the dark, which can affect sleep patterns and mood. When the days are shorter and darker, seasonal affective disorder is more likely to develop.3


Symptoms of SAD are usually consistent with typical depression symptoms, making it somewhat difficult to tell if one has SAD or another type of depression. Symptoms may include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, misery, apathy or loss of self-esteem
  • Disinterest in activities usually enjoyed
  • Feelings of anxiety or tension
  • Extreme changes in mood
  • Lethargy
  • Irritability
  • Decreased interest in social or physical contact

Symptoms that are more common in seasonal depression include:

  • Sleep issues, especially the desire to oversleep
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Social withdrawal

Mental Health America states that a diagnosis of SAD is given after two consecutive occurrences of depression that start and end at the same time each year, with symptoms lessening the rest of the year.

Those struggling with depression throughout the year may experience more severe symptoms with seasonal affective disorder. If you experience suicidal thoughts or urges this holiday season, seek help right away. Never ignore a loved one’s comments about suicide or behaviors that allude to self-harm.

To talk to someone immediately, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).


If you feel you may be affected by seasonal affective disorder, it may help to speak with your doctor. A few common treatments include:

  • Light therapy: a light box that exposes users to sun-like lighting for 20-60 minutes a day
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, referred by your doctor
  • Medication, prescribed by a psychiatrist

Check the National Institution of Health to learn more about the different types of SAD therapy.


Remember, if you or a loved one is experiencing an emergency, you can visit St. Vincent Neighborhood Hospital and meet with an emergency-trained physician within 15 minutes of your arrival. Click here to find the nearest neighborhood hospital.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE)
Mental Health America: 1-800-969-6642

If a loved one is having a life-threatening emergency, please call 911.