Beating the New Year’s Blues

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the New Year’s blues affect many people each year. An estimated 10 million [1] Americans are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, with a further 10 -20% experiencing mild symptoms. Fewer daylight hours disrupt a variety of neurochemicals and can cause fatigue, sadness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. When you combine SAD […]

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New Years Blues

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the New Year’s blues affect many people each year.

An estimated 10 million [1] Americans are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, with a further 10 -20% experiencing mild symptoms. Fewer daylight hours disrupt a variety of neurochemicals and can cause fatigue, sadness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

When you combine SAD with the holiday period, these symptoms are exacerbated because the holidays often add heightened social conflicts, increased alcohol consumption, debt, changed sleep patterns, weight gain, and cravings.

This year has been especially challenging. Covid-19 has meant that people all over the globe are struggling with their mental health after losing loved ones, losing their sources of income, experiencing isolation and a lack of connection, and experiencing the general anxiety that comes from living with uncertainty.

You are not alone if you are experiencing anxiety as 2021 approaches.

An Overview of SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder is not simply the “winter blues.” It is a type of depression that is clinically diagnosed and poses a real source of difficulty to those who experience it. This depression lasts for the season, sometimes returning at the onset of summer.[2]As many as six out of every 100 people in the U.S. experience SAD, and it is acknowledged that January and February are the months where the disorder is at its peak.[3]

Common Symptoms of SAD include:[4]

  • Feeling sad, worthless, or hopeless
  • Losing interest in hobbies
  • Low energy
  • Hypersomnia or changes in sleep pattern
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts

Causes of SAD

The main cause of SAD is attributed to the reduced sunlight, which disrupts your body’s natural circadian rhythm[5]  and induces depression due to the resulting  drop in serotonin. Serotonin impacts every aspect of your body and is considered a natural mood stabilizer. It’s the chemical that helps us sleep well, eat sensibly, and digest effectively, and having a healthy serotonin balance reduces depression and regulates anxiety. [6] The change in daylight hours also disrupts the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a key role in regulating mood and sleep patterns. Melatonin imbalances have been found to cause increased dysphoria. [7]

Those with a family history of depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD are more likely to experience this condition. Living far north or south of the equator is also thought to increase your risk due to the further decreased light in the winter months and longer days in the summer months. [8]

How to manage your “January Blues”

  • Daylight – Spend as much time outdoors in daylight as possible. Because a lack of exposure to the sun is a leading cause of SAD, spending time in natural daylight lessens your symptoms. Even sitting by a window can help. Even if you don’t have SAD, sunlight boosts your mood and increases serotonin.
  • Focus on your nutrition – Diet is such an essential component of mental health that it has inspired an entire field of medicine called nutritional psychiatry.[9] In the winter, we are more likely to crave starchy, high-fat foods. During periods of low mood, we also tend to crave food that are high in sugar and fat. Following a balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats will provide your body and mind with the tools it needs to promote physical and mental health. The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters.[10]
  • Seek connection – With COVID-19 social restrictions remaining in place all over the world, it has become increasingly important to meet our social needs. Time in isolation has affected many people’s mental health, exacerbated underlying conditions, and/or triggered their return. According to Stephen Ilardi, PhD, author of The Depression Cure and associate professor of Psychology at The University of Kansas, “social withdrawal amplifies the brain’s stress response, and social contact helps put the brakes on it.”[11] Therefore, maintaining social connection is paramount to ensuring that your emotional needs are met. If you are unable to meet a friend or family member outside for a walk, ensure you have regular meetings scheduled in your planner. If necessary, set up regular Zoom or Skype calls with loved ones and share news and photographs by email or WhatsApp.
  • Stay active – Exercise can relieve symptoms of depression and helps stimulate the release of feel-good brain chemicals. When you exercise, the brain releases endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter which aids in the relief of stress and pain. Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which play key roles in regulating your mood.[1]  Joining an online class will not only boost your connection to others but it will also likely motivate you and keep you on schedule. Exercising outside–a walk, jogging or practicing yoga or tai chi–will also increase your exposure to sunlight.
  • Practice Gratitude – Cultivating feelings of gratitude helps alleviate symptoms of depression. Gratitude’s benefits include strengthening empathy and connection to others, strengthening relationships, reducing stress and anxiety, and forging a path to more positive emotional experiences. Gratitude meditation involves sitting quietly in mindful meditation and focusing on the body and breath while slowly contemplating individually and carefully the things in our lives that we are thankful for, appreciate, and that bring us joy. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, states that “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves”[2]

Seek Help if Needed

We are living in uncertain times, and none of us knows what 2021 has in store. By remaining mindful of our own conditions, strengths, and weaknesses, we can monitor any feelings of depression that may arise during these winter months.  If you feel that your depression is worsening or becoming unmanageable, please ask for professional help.

Originally published at: https://www.heatherhayes.com/beating-the-new-years-blues/

[1] “Seasonal Affective Disorder”. Psychology Today, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder.

[2] “Seasonal Affective Disorder”. Https://Www.Apa.Org, 2014, https://www.apa.org/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder.

[3] “Speaking Of Psychology: How To Know If You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder”. Https://Www.Apa.Org, 2020, https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/seasonal-affective-disorder.

[4] “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – Symptoms And Causes”. Mayo Clinic, 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651.

[5] Wehr, Thomas A. et al. “A Circadian Signal Of Change Of Season In Patients With Seasonal Affective Disorder”. Archives Of General Psychiatry, vol 58, no. 12, 2001, p. 1108. American Medical Association (AMA), doi:10.1001/archpsyc.58.12.1108. Accessed 29 Dec 2020.

[6] “Serotonin: Functions, Normal Range, Side Effects, And More”. Healthline, 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/serotonin#functions.

[7] “Negative Effects Of Melatonin On Depression”. Vol 133, no. 10, 1976, pp. 1181-1186. American Psychiatric Association Publishing, doi:10.1176/ajp.133.10.1181. Accessed 29 Dec 2020.

[8] Rosen, Leora N. et al. “Prevalence Of Seasonal Affective Disorder At Four Latitudes”. Psychiatry Research, vol 31, no. 2, 1990, pp. 131-144. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/0165-1781(90)90116-m. Accessed 29 Dec 2020.

[9] Monique Tello, MPH. “Diet And Depression – Harvard Health Blog”. Harvard Health Blog, 2018, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/diet-and-depression-2018022213309.

[10] Sathyanarayana Rao, TS et al. “Understanding Nutrition, Depression And Mental Illnesses”. Indian Journal Of Psychiatry, vol 50, no. 2, 2008, p. 77. Medknow, doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391. Accessed 29 Dec 2020.

[11] (COVID-19), Coronavirus et al. “Depression Traps: Social Withdrawal, Rumination, And More”. Webmd, 2020, https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/depression-traps-and-pitfalls#1.

[12] “Exercise, Depression, And The Brain”. Healthline, 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/exercise#Exercise-and-brain-chemistry.

[13] Emmons, Robert. “Definition | What Is”. Greater Good, 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic//definition.

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