With Thanksgiving behind us, it's officially the season of holiday cheer -- but not for everyone. For many people, the month of December and the onslaught of festivities leaves them stressed, anxious and sad.
The winter blues are a relatively common phenomenon but, in some cases, what seems like a festive slump may be something more.
Those feelings that you shrug off as the "winter blues" could be a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to New York City psychiatrist Dr. Jason Hershberger. SAD, as it's called, is a mood disorder characterized by depressive symptoms reoccurring seasonally during the fall and winter months, which is mainly triggered by a lack of sunlight.
"There are overlapping symptoms of sadness and melancholy, but holiday blues often lifts after the holidays pass," Hershberger told The Huffington Post. "Seasonal affective disorder typically runs until there is a significant change in the amount of sunlight that the patient experiences."
Feeling a little down around Christmas time isn't necessarily an indication of a more serious issue. While holiday blues are relatively common, SAD is fairly rare.
However, because the cause of a low mood can be difficult to identify -- particularly when SAD is the cause -- the disorder can easily be mistaken for the holiday blues and go untreated. To make matters more confusing, symptoms of SAD typically first appear in the late fall -- just in time for the holidays.
"If a person notices that year in and year out they have episodes of depression during the winter months, that can be an important clue," Hershberger said. "Since the holidays also happen during that time of year it can be hard to untangle. A mental health professional can help someone untangle what is situational mood changes, what is SAD or help if the depressed mood is part of another condition."
Certain people are at a particularly high risk for developing SAD, including those with a parent or sibling with the disorder, or a prior history of depression. Women and young people, as well as those living in areas with more severe winters, where there is less light, face a greater risk. Psychologists have estimated that up to 10 percent of the population of Wisconsin suffers from SAD.
If you suspect that your holiday slump may be more than just that, Hershberger suggests creating a list of your symptoms and then consulting your doctor. To determine whether the cause of symptoms is SAD, the doctor will conduct a physical and mental examination, including blood tests.
Antidepressants and light therapy -- which works by helping increase Vitamin D levels and aiding the brain in producing more serotonin -- are the most common interventions for treating the disorder. Recent research has also suggested that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may be as or more effective than light therapy for treating SAD in the long-term.
In either case, making time for self-care in the midst of the holiday rush can help mediate depressive symptoms.
"Take care of yourself -- don't overeat and over-drink," Dr. Mark Sichel, clinical social worker and author of Healing From Family Rifts, told The Huffington Post last year. "Do your regular routines of exercise and whatever keeps you together during the year."