The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pleading with Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving or spend the holiday with people from outside their household as the coronavirus surges out of control.
It’s not a statement anyone wants to hear as the public health crisis continues to grow in this country. However, pandemic fatigue is just as real as the coronavirus. Even Americans who aren’t denying the science are beginning to chafe under mask mandates, capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines.
With families spread out all over the country, spending quality time with loved ones during the holidays is a warm, fuzzy moment that many crave. Unfortunately, the CDC’s recommendation means the holiday blues will most likely become a deeper shade of blue for many.
Medical experts say seasonal depression, what we call the holiday blues, is a real phenomenon, affecting an estimated 10 million Americans.
Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect your mood, sleep, appetite and energy levels, taking a toll on all aspects of your life from your relationships and social life to work, school, and your sense of self-worth. SAD usually begins in fall or winter when the days become shorter and remains until the brighter days of spring or early summer.
Doctors don’t know the exact causes of SAD, but have linked it to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule, often triggering attitude-related changes.
Constant reminders of others’ happiness are a painful reminder of what may be lacking in their own life. This is especially true for those dealing with family conflicts, break-ups, divorce, loneliness and mental health issues. Dark days and the stress associated with one or more of those risk factors, coupled with poor eating and drinking habits and a loss of energy and fatigue, further complicate the matter.
Other symptoms of depression include persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, guilt, indecisiveness, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, a tendency to oversleep, irritability, appetite or weight changes, and aches or pains without a clear physical cause that don’t ease even with treatment.
People experiencing these feelings often retreat from everyone or everything to ‘‘hibernate.’’ Unfortunately, social isolation often exacerbates the feeling of loneliness, making the symptoms of depression worse. In essence, a depressed individual becomes trapped in a downward-spiraling Catch-22 scenario.
You can help yourself by learning to recognize the risk factors of holiday depression. Then learn how to avoid them.
■ For starters, manage your expectations. Unrealistic expectations give way to strife or discord, which lead to disappointment and additional anxiety. Instead, realize the holidays will end, just like the ongoing health crisis. If it helps, create a checklist to ease the hassle of ensuring everything is covered.
■ Don’t try to do too much, especially if it means skimping on the daily routines that normally keep you healthy and happy. The pressure of trying to do everything isn’t as important as simply doing what’s necessary to take care of you. This isn’t the time for spontaneity.
■ Don’t fall into the social media trap. Don’t. When we’re feeling vulnerable, it’s easy to start comparing our life to others. Just Don’t. Many people carefully curate their image or personal brand on social media. That brief snapshot is just that, a brief snapshot of a single moment. It’s unrealistic to use that as a basis for any comparison. It bears repeating a third time. Don’t. Just Don’t.
■ Finally, try these simple steps to help keep your mood and motivation steady: Eat well; exercise; check something off your bucket list; spend time by a fire; take vitamins; manage your screen time; and get plenty of fresh air.
It’s normal to have some days when you feel sluggish or sapped of all your energy. The good news about SAD is that it’s treatable and usually resolves itself by the time spring returns. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.
Those in need of help should reach out to SAMHSA’s National Helpline, (800) 662-HELP. It’s a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is a branch of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.