How To Cope With Holiday Stress + Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter solstice is a month away but the drop in temperature, my frozen hands as I tried to play tennis this week, and the blanket scarf that now lives in my office have made clear that the change in season is here! And though there is so much good about the holiday season, it’s also a time where there’s an uptick in stress, whether that’s due to the weather itself or dealing with holiday stress. Today, as part of my ongoing editorial series with Tufts Medical Center, I’m thrilled to share actionable steps you can take to manage stress and deal with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

7 General Stress Management Tips

1. Snack well

The holidays are a time of indulgence, and “eating your feelings” creeps in when you’re under stress! Keep easy-to-grab healthy snacks (e.g., apples, bananas, whole grain crackers with a cheese stick, nuts) on hand so when you’re hit with a craving or are feeling stressed and want to eat, you have good options in front of you. And be sure to drink plenty of water!

2. Keep moving

Physical activity helps manage stress. If you feel like the weather is dampening your fitness plans, check out these 9 tips for exercising in cold weather; sunlight helps reduce seasonal affective disorder! Also, you can keep moving in your workplace too.

3. Prioritize sleep

Good sleep hygiene is key to well-being. If you find that your sleep is going off track, check out these 7 steps to better sleep.

4. Practice mindfulness

For a few minutes a day, practice being mindful, focusing only on what’s going on in the present. Instead of thinking about what’s worrying you or stressing you out, pay attention to your senses—what you see, feel, hear and smell.

5. Meditate

Wellforce—the health system in which Tufts Medical Center is a member—suggests some great meditation apps. Among them, Calm is an app that starts out with a seven-day program and is a great way for beginners to start meditation. It allows you to choose between options for sound and length of time, as well as scenes from nature to help you visually focus while you meditate.

6. Practice gratitude

Studies show that grateful people report feeling healthier and are more likely to take care of themselves than others. Next time you are stopped in traffic or waiting in line, think of one thing you appreciate about someone in your life—and tell them the next time you see them! 

7. Turn on some tunes

A recent study in the Journal of Emerging Investigators showed that slow or meditative music reduces stress, so set your radio or Spotify to a soothing station during your commute.


6 Things To Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

What should you do if you have tried all of the above and it doesn’t seem to be enough? It’s not uncommon to feel a little down when you rarely see daylight but at what point does the “blah” feeling that comes with the dull days become a real issue you should address? Niamh Carroll, MD, a primary care physician at Tufts Medical Center, answered a few questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that occurs when the gray days get to be a little too much to handle.

1. So, what exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. Depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur, but are much less common than winter episodes of SAD. SAD occurs more often in young adults than older adults, and more often in women than in men. People who live further from the equator are also more likely to be affected by SAD—which means the short days and long winters we experience in Boston can really be a factor!

2. What are the symptoms of SAD?

People who have SAD will experience a combination of the following symptoms during the fall and winter. Often times the symptoms will peak in January and February.

  • Depressed mood or feeling low
  • Feeling hopeless or guilty
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Loss of interest in things you typically enjoy
  • Having problems with sleeping (too much or too little)
  • Change in your weight and appetite (either an increase or decrease)
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal ideation

3. What’s the difference between SAD & depression?

SAD is similar to depression but there is a seasonal pattern. The symptoms of SAD are worse in winter and improve with sunshine. Patients with SAD may notice that they sleep and eat more in the winter, that they socialize less, and that sunnier weather helps their mood. They may also crave carbohydrates.

4. A lot of SAD symptoms sound like something we all experience when the weather keeps us cooped up. What’s the difference between SAD and plain old winter blues?

It’s true that a lot of people experience some of the symptoms of SAD in mild ways, but don’t have SAD or depression. In the winter, many of us rarely see the sun, don’t exercise as often, eat heavier meals, and find ourselves spending more time on the couch wrapped in a blanket. These lifestyle changes can contribute to a person feeling depressed and tired, or result in weight gain—all symptoms of SAD. But, if these changes in your lifestyle and mood are easily improved by an increase in exercise or a walk outside, you likely have the winter blues, whereas people with SAD struggle to shake off these winter blues symptoms.

5. How do I know if I should talk to someone about whether or not I have SAD?

If you notice a seasonal pattern to any of the symptoms as mentioned above, you should talk to your doctor. Even if you have mild symptoms of the winter blues, it can’t hurt to have a discussion with your primary care doctor about your concerns.

6. How is SAD treated?

The primary treatments for SAD are light therapy, psychotherapy and antidepressants. Many trials indicate that artificial bright white light is effective for patients with SAD, typically leading to a positive response or remission of SAD in about 60% of patients. Light therapy mimics the natural light you don’t see in the wintertime, and may cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. Talk to your physician if you are having SAD symptoms and think you might be a candidate for this. In addition to light therapy, your doctor might recommend speaking with a therapist. Your physician also may prescribe antidepressants based on the severity of your SAD symptoms.

About Tufts Medical Center

At Tufts Medical Center Primary Care, your health is our number one priority. With offices in Boston, Quincy, Wellesley, Framingham and Woburn, no matter where you live and work, we have a practice to accommodate your needs. At our offices, you’ll find world-class medical care and physicians with the welcoming and supportive feel of a small practice. Our primary care physicians (PCPs) and health care professionals are dedicated to disease prevention and keeping you as healthy as possible, while providing you medical expertise, compassionate care, and access to specialty care when you need it. For information about our practices, to request an appointment with a physician or for other patient resources, visit our website.

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Disclaimer: The content provided in this post is intended solely for the information of the reader. This information is not medical advice and should not replace a consultation with a medical professional.

Disclosure: This post reflects a compensated editorial partnership with Tufts Medical Center. All personal commentary is, of course, my own.

Featured photo by Luiza Sayfullina on Unsplash