Blurry woman with colored cloud above her head, staring over the tops of houses.
Illustration by Amelia Madarang

With winter approaching, expect holiday blues

This holiday season will be mired in unprecedented challenges as the world braces for winter during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance on how to safely celebrate during the holidays. A Morning Consult poll found that 47% of Americans have already canceled gatherings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.  Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also warned that Thanksgiving and other holiday celebrations pose a high risk for contracting the virus that causes COVID-19. 

“Each family needs to calculate the risk-benefit of doing that (making plans for holiday gatherings), particularly when you have people coming in from out of town, who may have been on airplanes, who have been in airports to just come into the house,” Fauci said on Good Morning America. 

Isolated celebrations will be difficult for those who enjoy the social component of the holidays, leading to more people struggling with the holiday blues this year. However, COVID-19 may bring opportunities for improvisation of new socially distant holiday traditions that minimize the loneliness, such as unwrapping presents, playing games and watching movies on Zoom. 

For others, socializing during the holidays is stressful. Many people claim spending time around family negatively impacts their mental well-being. The same APA study cited earlier found that 44% of Americans say family gatherings are a stressor. Extended family members tend to be more nosy about your personal life and ask questions that are uncalled for. There is a lot to remind ourselves of when spending time around family, such as having boundaries and knowing that it is acceptable to say no. 

As the COVID-19 total death count has already reached 240,000 in the United States, many will face a new, harsh reality. The passing of a loved one and having to leave an empty chair at the holiday dinner table will undoubtedly be a heart-wrenching experience for many people. Some may spiral into a depression and feel unmotivated to celebrate due to their bereavement. It is important to respect and offer help to those grieving the loss of a loved one. 

Furthermore, those who struggle with mental health disorders bear the brunt of the holiday blues. Pre-pandemic, in 2014, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 64% of individuals with a mental health disorder believe that the holidays worsen their conditions. Mental well-being may decline even more during this holiday season due to the pandemic. 

Holiday blues is typically attributed to Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder in which people experience depressive symptoms during a particular season each year, most commonly in the winter. Symptoms include lack of energy, changes in appetite or sleep patterns and difficulty concentrating. The American Psychiatric Association reports that approximately 5% of the U.S. population is affected by SAD during the winter. This number is expected to increase during the 2020 holiday season, as we approach a dark winter along with increased COVID-19 restrictions. 

The causes for SAD are relatively unknown. However, many psychologists speculate that lack of sunlight disturbs one’s internal clock. One of the most common and effective treatments for SAD is light therapy, also known as phototherapy. Light therapy miraculously tricks your brain into thinking you are getting hit by natural light rays, sans potentially harmful ultraviolet light rays. Light therapy lamps will not cure SAD, but they have proven to be effective in easing symptoms and increasing energy levels. 

Holidays have always had the notion of being filled with joy and cheer, but for many, it is not, and that it is O.K. The holiday season is the toughest time of the year and carries a lot of emotional weight for many, especially during a pandemic. It is important to check in on ourselves and others as we endure this unprecedented winter.

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