SAD Stress and the Strains of Winter Holiday Season: Getting Through It with Sanity Intact


Currently there is some debate in medical circles as to whether seasonal affective disorder (SAD) truly exists. Yet people who feel more than usually discouraged, devitalized, and depressed in the winter still struggle to feel "normal" in these months.

SAD is bound to be one of several winter stressors affecting relationships and personal satisfaction. Financial and time pressures to get the perfect gift for too many people are compounded by navigating extra traffic and crowds, if you don't shop online. Then there's the guilt-inducing wish to avoid hosting and attending the many family and business get-togethers that seem required when Halloween rolls into Thanksgiving which becomes Christmas and New Year's.

If you tend to dread the long and overly commercialized holiday season, made even more tense and painful this year when factoring in the election and inauguration that bookend the season, you aren't alone. Let's take a look at how these strains might affect you.

Common Signs of the Seasonal Blahs

  • increased pessimism

  • more impatience and frustration

  • having high anxiety about the unknown future

  • feeling guilty about not meeting expectations

  • feeling chronically tired

  • wanting to hibernate the winter away

  • being irritated by others' cheerfulness

  • higher tendency to be argumentative

  • preferring to avoid holiday festivities

  • experiencing emotional let down

  • waning sex drive

  • increased carb cravings and weight gain

  • more desire for escapist activities and substances

Some people who experience several of the signs above might benefit from clinical treatment for depression or bipolar disorder. And many can lower their stress level with a combination of approaches to good relationship maintenance and self-care listed below.

Relationship Maintenance

At the most basic level, relationship maintenance is a way of being extra mindful of how we interact with each other so that the relationship itself stays healthy during stressful times. Just like it is beneficial to give your valued electronics a bit of cleaning and recharging every day so that they function optimally, the same or better level of attention is useful for keeping our most significant relationships in good shape. This includes:

  1. remembering to say please and thank you

  2. asking each other how the day went, and really listening

  3. empathizing with your partner's hurts and frustrations

  4. practicing active listening, paraphrasing what you thought you heard

  5. requesting conversation or alone time when needed

  6. anticipating simple needs and fulfilling them

  7. giving gratitude for the little things done for you

  8. fixing and eating meals together

  9. having electronics-free time every day

  10. having date nights or kid-free time every week

And a radical suggestion might be to dare to take a vacation over the holidays with just your spouse, or partner and kids, and skip the family festivities if that's a huge source of stress for one or both of you. You really are allowed to reduce holiday stress and increase winter fun, if you can do so without guilt.

Self-Care for Holiday Stress

Don't forget to include yourself in your winter / holiday stress reduction measures. One of the biggest stressors for women in particular is the feeling of having to take care of everyone else first, and never having enough time to effectively unwind and replenish mind, body, and spirit.

But self-care is an essential component of good mental and physical health, and without tending to self-care, you really can't enjoy yourself or your friends and family. So here are some suggestions to incorporate into your everyday routine:

  1. Increase exposure to daylight or full spectrum light

  2. increase sleep time, maybe use melatonin to promote sounder sleep

  3. reduce white foods and sugars in your diet

  4. eat more whole and raw foods

  5. insist on the alone time you need to recharge your social batteries

  6. keep strong boundaries -- don't over extend and don't let yourself be imposed on

  7. do most of your shopping online

  8. practice saying no thanks, not this year

  9. meditate or exercise daily

  10. only answer phone calls with recognizable caller ID

  11. hire some housekeeping help

  12. do something extra special just for you

The main key to surviving the holidays and the winter SAD season with your sanity intact is to resist old habits that drain your energy. That often means avoiding the people and situations that stress you out. And it's a change to give yourself permission to do something different that promotes loving relationships, healthy boundaries, and sincere gratitude.

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