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The holiday season is not 'the most wonderful time of the year’ for all—why winter blues impact us

Ryan Melaugh | Flickr, Creative Commons | http://bit.ly/1ISisnU

The bustle of office parties, gift-giving and family get-togethers are usually part of the build-up to a joyful holiday season but, for some, the season sometimes brings with it a feeling of sadness. In fact, the holiday blues are not all that uncommon at all.

Tim Bono, assistant dean and lecturer in psychology at Washington University, joined “St. Louis on the Air” on Wednesday to discuss these feelings of depression during the holidays—as well as what to do if you know someone who seems a bit more down during this time of year. 

Related: Mind, body, soul and science: Researching happiness at SLU and Wash. U

The holiday blues and, more seriously, Seasonal Affective Disorder, have root in a key natural change that takes place during the winter months, according to Bono.

“There are a lot of factors that are present during the winter months that impact our psychological health,” Bono said. “Key among them has to do with the amount of sunlight we have exposure to.”

Light does a lot more for us than enable us to see—it impacts the release of neurochemicals that impact mood, energy levels and sleep patterns.

Bono said that it is not the case that everyone in the population gets depressed, but the winter months do show an overall increase in the percentage of the population reporting those feelings.

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Tim Bono

“I think that a part of it, in addition to the reduction of light, has to do with the expectations that people have as they enter the holiday season,” Bono said. “There are a lot of messages in society and pop culture about what the holidays should feel like and if people’s reality doesn’t match up to those expectations, that can cause them to see a reduction in their overall mood and well-being.”

Along these lines, Bono referenced a study that showed that among people who checked into the psychiatric hospital around the holiday season, one of the foremost reasons was loneliness and being without family.

A contrast effect is taking place—seeing families gathered around the table on television only makes you more aware if you’re not in the same situation.

Stress can also be high during the holidays which takes a toll on people—final reports are due at work, shopping lists are long and, as we talked about last month, the prospect of seeing family members you struggle with can be daunting.

What are some of the ways that you can alleviate depression and stress during the holidays? Bono recommends looking at your diet, your exercise and sleep patterns—which may be off due to the nature of the season.

If you see someone you think may be struggling with depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder, Bono recommends that you open a conversation with them about the way you’ve seen them change.

“The first thing to take into consideration is to see if they themselves have awareness they could be suffering from something,” Bono said. “In order to get someone to change their behavior, they have to be aware of it.”

That means gently pointing to behaviors you’ve seen—lowered energy, mood, etc.—and using that as a gateway to getting help.

“Engage yourself with as much of the social support as you possibly can,” said Bono.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.