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Winter blues: Holidays can have powerful effect on SAD

Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal - 12/2/2017

Dec. 02--TUPELO -- Who hasn't occasionally suffered the wintertime blues? After all, it's cold, the days are short, and you spend more time cooped up inside. It's enough to make even the most naturally cheerful person feel a bit down from time to time.

But what if your occasional gloomy day turns into an extended season of them, and you move from feeling a bit low to feeling truly hopeless? Depending on whom you ask, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

SAD was first recognized as a form of depression in the 1980s by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), categorized as major depression with a yearly recurrence, as opposed to the occasional winter doldrums.

Data indicates that lack of exposure to sunlight plays a significant role in the prevalence of SAD. For instance, one percent of people living in Florida struggle with SAD, as compared to nine percent of those living in New England or Alaska, according to NIMH.

SAD is now considered a diagnosable and insurable disorder, and a range of treatments -- from light therapy to antidepressants to talk therapy -- are recommended.

Mental health practitioners in Tupelo offer a variety of explanations for the root causes of SAD and suggestions for its treatment.

Tiffany Phillips is a child, adolescent, and family therapist at Counseling For a Cause, a faith-based counseling center on Cliff Gookin Boulevard, and she believes seasonal depression can manifest as the result of unresolved emotional and spiritual issues.

"Sometimes we're holding onto hurt and unforgiveness and anger. Sometimes it's grief and loss we haven't dealt with, or even anger at God for taking someone we love from us. It's often undiagnosed. We put on the mask like everything's fine when inside we're falling apart. We need to be vulnerable enough to say 'I'm not OK.'" she said.

Phillips believes a change of holiday routine can be helpful in lifting seasonal depression, even if it means saying 'no' to some of the expectations of friends and family members.

"My number one thing would be to do something different. You may have to do a little self-protection. If you have to be around toxic people, then take breaks. You don't have to be immersed in it. You've got to guard and protect your heart, so you may have to limit your exposure to certain people or situations," she said.

Mark Russell is a treatment consultant with The Oxford Treatment Center in downtown Tupelo, as well as a therapist with Conscious Healing Therapies on Spring Street. Russell said seasonal depression can be compounded by technologies like Facebook and Instagram.

"Just look at social media.We all put on a facade, and it puts pressure on folks to attain what they think someone else has -- what they're eating or where they're going or who they're with. If you're in a bad place, that can send you deeper. Depressed people feel isolated and social media exacerbates that feeling," he said.

Russell said those with a predisposition toward addiction are especially vulnerable to SAD.

"The way I see this is as a massive mental health issue and people are self-medicating. The population is just sick. During the holidays there's alcohol everywhere you look, and usually where there's alcohol there are drugs. When there are underlying mental health issues, a person may take whatever's available just to try to suppress that issue or feeling," he said.

Russell said while medicines have their place in a treatment regime for some patients, there are other ways to hold SAD at bay.

"Some things you can do at home," Russell said. "Open the drapes and let some light in. Bundle up and go for a walk. Try not to sit around the house for more than an hour at a time. I'd recommend attending church. There are lots of things you can do that are non-pharmacological, and remember, the sun's gonna shine again."

Jessica Roberts is a marriage and family therapist with Tupelo Marriage and Family Therapy and Counseling on Madison Street, and she attributes SAD to a number of factors.

"There's genetics, and there are environmental factors, but I would say the chemical component is more important, just from my point of view," she said.

A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Roberts said there may be a theological misunderstanding at the heart of mental health issues like SAD for some believers.

"I don't think that just because you're a believer you're promised happiness. Everything isn't black and white, and we're not entitled to always feel good, but if things don't turn out the way we want, we say, 'What's wrong? How dare the world not provide me health and a happy marriage and a good job right out of college," she said.

Roberts said dealing with SAD requires both patience and work.

"I would say we are more unhappy than we've ever been as a society," she said. "The research shows we just want a quick fix. We just want to take a pill. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's easier than to sit with these things and work through them. It's hard work. It's the winter time. It'll be summer again. Now let's move on."


(c)2017 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.)

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