Shorter daylight, colder temperatures and the beginning of fall and winter can trigger feelings of low mood, lack of motivation, loss of interest and fatigue. Coupled with the holidays, individuals can feel even more stressed out and over worked and have a tendency to sleep less and eat more, resulting in unwanted weight gain. Social gatherings, the financial burden of buying gifts, and the pressure to feel festive when in reality you are depressed can trigger holiday anxiety. According to studies approximately 40% of adults are riddled with social anxiety around the holidays and many turn to food and alcohol as coping mechanisms, which can result in a downward spiral. Or what about those individual who love the holidays and experience sadness and depression-like symptoms once the holidays are over? Holiday anxiety, seasonal affective disorder and the holiday blues can all mimic signs and symptoms of depression and it is important to know the difference in order to know when to seek professional help.

Seasonal affective disorder

The “winter blues”, formally known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) starts to become apparent in the fall, pique in the winter and resolve in the springtime and is more apparent for individual living in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast where grey skies are prominent 4-6 months out of the year. Seasonal affective disorder is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a separate condition. Instead it is listed as a specifier “with seasonal pattern” under Major Depressive Disorder, recurrent and the Bipolar Disorders. SAD is usually more common in the fall and winter (Winter SAD), though it may occur during the spring and summer (Spring SAD). Winter-onset SAD is more common and is often characterized by atypical depressive symptoms including; hypersomnia, increased appetite, and craving for carbohydrates. On the other hand, spring/summer SAD also is seen and is more frequently associated with typical depressive symptoms including insomnia and loss of appetite.

How seasonal affective disorder differs from depression

Depression is a clinical mood disorder that is recognized by the DSM and affects children and adults throughout the entire year. Symptoms of depression must be present for at least two weeks in duration and do not have any correlation with the seasons or change in temperature. Additionally these symptoms must cause apparent distress in social and occupational functioning:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Loss of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Change in appetite
  • Psychomotor agitation
  • Sadness
  • Suicide ideations

Experiencing the holiday blues

The anticipation and excitement that is experienced during the holiday season is often met with some degree of disappointment and sadness once the holidays have passed. While not everyone will experience this sentiment, these emotions are typically known as the “holiday blues”. Some individuals may feel rather relieved that the holidays are over and ready to move one, but for others, the holiday blues are a real experience that can even trigger emotions like depression, anxiety, and general uneasiness. Experiencing the holiday blues while also in recovery can be especially triggering and difficult to work through. Recognizing the difference between the holiday blues, seasonal affective disorder, holiday anxiety and clinical depression can hopefully help an individual seek professional help, as clinical depression warrants professional mental health treatment while the other disorders will dissipate once the particular time of year has passed.