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Feeling Sad at Christmas: Is There Something Wrong With Me?

Many of us feel low during winter. Understanding why helps improve well-being.

Key points

  • Feeling low during the winter holidays can be due to a range of factors, both circumstantial and clinical.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recognized clinical disorder that impacts mood, most often during the winter months.
  • Self-diagnosis and disregarding the impact that disrupted routines can have on health leads people to misframe their feelings during winter.
Source: tommaso79/Shutterstock

The winter holidays are sold as a time of celebration, love, indulgence, and gratitude, and come with an implicit expectation to be happy. However, these festive joys are often served with a cocktail of unhealthy behaviors, forced hibernation, and emotional upheaval that can inevitably lead to low mood, depression, and anxiety.

A range of factors and conditions can influence our mood during winter. For some, feeling low may be indicative of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For others, low mood may signal other forms of clinical depression.

At times, our overuse of clinical terms in daily language can diminish the struggles experienced by those living with severe mental illness. Self-diagnosis and the tendency to overlook the impact that disrupted routines can have on our health may lead people to misframe their feelings during winter.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recognised clinical disorder that impacts mood, most often during the winter months. Reduced exposure to sunlight influences levels of serotonin in the brain and can disrupt circadian rhythms associated with rest and recovery. These factors impact the brain’s ability to regulate mood and are associated with various symptoms of depression. A growing body of research has been devoted to understanding and treating seasonal affective disorder. Making the most of what little sun is available during winter is encouraged. Fluorescent light boxes within the home also provide an alternative source of light exposure. Finally, taking Vitamin D supplements can enhance mood and are an effective means of promoting mental well-being. For further details, the NHS provides advice on how to recognise SAD symptoms and when to contact a health professional. It also offers a range of treatments.

Clinical Depression or "Ordinary Sadness"?

During winter, inclement weather, family tensions, and the overconsumption of food and alcohol can intensify the depth of our daily emotions. This can lead some to misframe transitory experiences of low mood as depression. This is problematic, as the growing tendency to seek out mental health information online can result in erroneous self-diagnoses. Much academic discussion has considered the differences between ordinary sadness and clinical depression; however more efforts are needed to communicate these to a broader public audience and to encourage the mindful use of clinical language.

Clinical depression is often thought of as being rooted in our own biological processes and survival instincts. However, a person’s propensity towards developing clinical depression is not dependent solely on their genetic heritage but also strongly influenced by childhood development and adverse experiences throughout the life course.

Misframing "normal sadness" as a clinical disorder is a problem. Addressing this problem requires us to emphasize that diagnosing clinical depression remains a clinical task, not a self-reflective task. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has emphasised the inevitable exercise of clinical judgement, as well as the importance of fully understanding the context of individual experience when evaluating clinical depression.

The dangers of self-diagnosis are becoming increasingly apparent, especially with respect to mental health. When you look to the internet to contextualise how you feel, the endless supply of conflicting information heightens the risk of exacerbating your symptoms. It is possible to be completely wrong when self-diagnosing mental health issues, especially if the symptoms are commonly experienced. When worried about mental health, engaging with mental health services is very important to ensure the safe and proper evaluation of your health.

Other Causes of Winter Blues: Focus on Health, Not Labels

In a culture that increasingly pathologizes normal emotions, it can be helpful to focus more on simple steps to improving your health than to search for labels to explain your feelings. Regular exercise has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms often associated with depression. Similarly, engaging with others socially, maintaining a healthy diet, and limiting stress can all help to enhance mental well-being.

Often our experiences of low mood during the holidays stem from a complex combination of circumstances, born of our ongoing struggle to manage our needs and commitments. One of the first things to crumble under the weight of holiday pressure is our daily routine. Cold, dark mornings make it hard to get out of bed; we exercise less, eat more, drink more, and lose some of the structure that kept us on an even keel earlier in the year. We also experience changes to our social life. Extraverts and socialites may feel stifled by the forced hibernation that winter can bring. Conversely, lone wolves and introverts may feel frazzled by the obligations of party season. Throw in some work deadlines, family tensions, and the stress of planning for Christmas, and it’s no surprise that the holiday season results in a confusing emotional upheaval for so many of us.

Assessing the origins of this emotional upheaval and putting it in its proper context can help us to avoid clinging to labels in an attempt to explain our emotions. Feeling sad over the Christmas period does not mean there's something wrong with you. Accepting this may prevent you from inaccurately self-diagnosing your feelings. This may also pave the way to refocussing your attention on well-being by motivating yourself to be healthy, shaking off the snow and getting out of a rut. Sometimes it can hard to fully understand the nature and context of what you’re experiencing. It can be useful to take a step back and remind yourself of the range of factors that influence your mood, avoid self-diagnosis, and focus on health as a starting point for physical and mental well-being.

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