Is it the holiday blues or something else?

Created date

November 5th, 2018
A man comforts a sad looking woman.

Did you know? Although it is less common, seasonal affective disorder can occur in spring or summertime.

Feeling lonely and sad this holiday season? It could be more than what people call “the blues.”

“For some older adults, the holidays can trigger feelings of loneliness and sadness due to aging, isolation, illness, loss of loved ones, or other major life changes,” says Charla Anderson, B.S.N., R.N.-P.M.H.N.C, regional director of clinical operations for Plano, Tex.-based Oceans Healthcare. “With the blues, these feelings tend to be temporary and pass soon after the holiday season ends.”

Several simple strategies can help alleviate the sadness and make it easier to enjoy your holidays. “Physical activity can help release endorphins that boost your mood—even better if you’re able to go outside to get a little natural sunlight,” Anderson suggests. “Enjoy a hobby or activity while family and friends are visiting, but try to limit the decadent foods available at the holidays to avoid additional weight gain, which can worsen the holiday blues.”

If you are the type of person who isolates themselves when you are sad, do the exact opposite. Research shows that socializing can help alleviate or prevent the blues altogether, even if you think being around people will make you feel worse.

A SAD winter

The shorter days and decreased daylight that coincide with the holidays could be responsible for a form of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The difference between the blues and SAD is difficult to determine when symptoms first occur. The duration of the blues and the severity of symptoms is usually your best clue.

“When feelings of sadness and depression last throughout the winter and don’t improve over time, you may be suffering from SAD.” Anderson says. “You may experience additional or more severe symptoms, including unexplained aches and pains, anxiety, extreme fatigue, increased drowsiness, loss of interest in social activities, and changes in appetite or weight.”

Some people with SAD do not realize that they need to do something about it. The type of treatment depends on how much the symptoms are affecting your daily life, functioning, or relationships.

People with milder symptoms such as a persistent low mood that is not leading to significant disruptions in daily life may benefit from light therapy (phototherapy). Research shows that it is as effective as antidepressants for some people who have milder forms of SAD.

Phototherapy involves a specialized box that emits outdoor-like light that has been shown to affect mood-regulating brain chemicals. “It can help slow the body’s release of melatonin and promote alertness,” Anderson explains.

If phototherapy isn’t effective on its own, you may need another intervention. “A doctor may suggest cognitive behavioral therapy to help teach techniques to better manage SAD symptoms like anxiety, stress, and pain,” Anderson says.

“Medication and counseling are necessary for people who do not respond to more conservative treatment,” adds Roberta Feldhausen, R.N., P.M.H.-C.N.S., B.C., mental health provider at Riderwood, an Erickson Living community in Silver Spring, Md.

Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, meditation, or tai chi may help certain people.

Clinical depression

If SAD persists after spring has sprung, it could be clinical depression. “The typical symptoms of SAD are practically indistinguishable from clinical depression,” Feldhausen says. “If symptoms last for more than two weeks, you need to be seen by a health care professional.”

Some people may not think they are depressed because of the nature of their symptoms. “Research shows that some seniors do not experience typical signs of depression,” says Matt Narrett, M.D., chief medical officer for Erickson Living. “Instead, they may have cloudy thinking, feel uncomfortable in social situations, or simply attribute their problems to another physical cause.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults are at an increased risk of clinical depression and depression-related conditions. Prevalence estimates range from 5% to 20%, due in part to the fact that seniors are under-diagnosed and under-treated. If you have any signs of depression, speak up to your doctor.