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Winter Blues: Understanding Seasonal Depression

Some streets are already decorated with twinkling holiday lights; you might faintly smell delicious sugar cookies, and by now, Target has seasonal gear covering just about every shelf. Hallmark is in full swing of their Christmas movies, and the kiddos might even be asking: When is Santa coming? For many, this is their favorite time of year that’s full of love, family, laughing, and creating new memories.

For others, the seasonal change isn’t something to look forward to because with it comes seasonal depression. The warm summer nights are gone, the beautiful fall leaves have disappeared and left the trees empty and bare, and cold mornings waiting for the car to warm up are upon us.

Seasonal depression affects children, teenagers, and adults, and the symptoms might present differently depending on an individual’s age.

“I’ve certainly seen kids have seasonal depression,” says Lauren Kerstein, an author, psychotherapist, and speaker. “Especially my kids on the spectrum, who already have sleep issues…it just exacerbates their sleep issues.”

If you or your child are feeling depressed nearly every day, have low energy, problems sleeping, changes in appetite or weight gain, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, or difficulty concentrating, and these behavioral and emotional changes begin and end with the seasons, you might be experiencing seasonal depression.

The Days Have Gone Dark and Cold
The technical term for seasonal depression is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which occurs when the seasons change (typically when fall turns to winter).

The sun is setting sooner and rising later, and it can deprive us of those warm experiences and memories. Hiking on the weekends, taking a bike ride after dinner, and the nights with a warm, roaring campfire in the backyard are less appealing when the wet, cold frost is on each blade of grass.

“Our biological clock changes in the winter because it gets darker earlier,” says Kerstein. “So that causes an imbalance in our chemicals, neurologically in our brain. It can also cause a vitamin D deficiency.”

Typically, during the winter season, people’s lifestyles change, which can impact our diet, physical activity, and social interactions, and all of this can contribute to SAD. It’s easy to get into the cycle of not making plans, staying home, and overall, avoiding the cold.

The Empty Chair at the Table
The seasons changing is what people usually think of when discussing seasonal depression, but the loss of a loved one is commonly left out of that conversation. Especially around the holidays, whether it’s your first year without them or a decade later, losing a loved one can bring feelings of sadness, despair, and emptiness. Grief doesn’t take a break during the holidays.

When you lose someone close to you, the joyful holiday traditions and rituals might change or become nonexistent.

“Create the same ritual as you did and then maybe create some new ones, so there are new memories happening,” says Rachel Montez Minor, the author of the children’s book See You On the Other Side. “There are ways we can bring them [our loved ones who have passed] into our rituals.”

For young children, participating in holiday traditions, like cooking grandma’s classic pumpkin pie, can help them cope with losing a loved one. Children can also benefit from creating new traditions and memories together, like running the Turkey Trot or going around the dinner table and everyone saying what they’re thankful for.

Things That Can Help
1. Staying Active
In the wintertime, it’s easy to lock ourselves inside and stay out of the cold. People experiencing grief may isolate themselves from others, especially when it’s dark and cold. This kind of isolation can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and despair. If you or someone you know is dealing with the death of a loved one, try to get out of the house

Finding a winter hobby will help you stay active, like skiing, snowboarding, or sledding. By going outside and staying in the sun, you will get Vitamin D, which can improve the symptoms of SAD. If you don’t like the cold, consider taking Vitamin D supplements and staying busy with an indoor activity, like indoor rock climbing or going to the local rec center to throw pottery.

2. Discussing Change
Depression is sometimes connected to change, like starting a new school, splitting up with your partner, or losing an important person in your life.

“We can teach our children that change is part of nature; it’s part of the natural cycle,” Minor says. “I wish that more families started teaching children at a young age because I think there’s a lot of adults that have a lot of problems with change.”

Here are two books that can start the conversation about change:
See You on the Other Side is a picture book that can offer comfort to children who may be grieving or coming to terms with the idea of loss or change.

Remembering Sundays with Grandpa by Lauren H. Kerstein illustrates how when someone is no longer part of the physical world, their love lives on forever.

If you or your child are struggling during this time, consider seeing a specialist who can provide valuable support and strategies to manage and alleviate the feelings of SAD.

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