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Depression can become relevant during holidays

By Staff | Nov 19, 2010

As autumn turns into winter and the holiday season beckons, some around the community work to combat the anxiety, stress and depression that can take a toll this time of year.

Eileen Elliot, a professional licensed counselor, runs the Heart to Heart counseling office in Shepherdstown and feels seasonal depression, otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and heightened anxiety experienced by many during the holiday season needs attention.

Though Elliott primarily specializes in family and children’s counseling, she also facilitates a support group for individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder and depression and their family members.

The group, called the Depression/Bipolar Support Alliance of the Eastern Panhandle (DBSA), was established a little less than two years ago and currently averages between five to 10 participants per meeting.

As a service to those already diagnosed with depression but who may experience even more dramatic mood shifts during late fall before the holiday season, the group will offer two opportunities to receive support on Dec. 2 and 16 at 6:30 p.m. in St. Agnes Parish Center in Shepherdstown.

“Those with the disorder really have a hard time this time of year,” Elliot said.

The group supports members who may feel the burden of holiday obligations and those particularly affected by the colder, darker months.

SAD is a mood disorder and form of depression, also known as “winter blues,” and according to Elliot, often begins to adversely affect the general population this time every year.

As the days get shorter and darker and the weather becomes more unfavorable, people often find themselves exhibiting the symptoms of clinical depression.

“Almost everybody changes this time of year,” Elliott said.

Those affected with SAD experience what Elliot calls cyclic depression, as it comes and goes each year.

According to the American Psychological Association, people with SAD experience the classic symptoms of depression which include excessive feelings of worthlessness or guilt, a lack of interest in day to day activities that were once pleasurable, significant weight loss or gain, excessive sleeping or trouble sleeping, lethargy, inability to concentrate and even regular thoughts of death or suicide in extreme cases.

The impending holiday season can further worry those already feeling down and out.

Barbara Byers, director of Shepherd University counseling services, acknowledges that the rate of suicide and episodes of depression often increase between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, though she distinguishes between SAD and the bleak feelings experienced over the holidays.

“Remember, Dec. 21 is actually the longest day of the year,” she said, explaining those with SAD begin to experience symptoms well before the Christmas season, as the disorder often directly correlates with the reduced amount of sunshine and daylight hours in mid-November.

“A lot of students we see with depression do fluctuate in mood when the days get shorter,” Byers said.

She advises patients to keep their blinds open during the sunniest part of the day and spend more time outdoors and in direct sunlight, whether reading for class or engaging in physical activity, which is known to help reduce symptoms of depression.

Byers also noted that many factors contribute to the blues often experienced over the holidays, like familial obligations, money woes, inclement weather, increased loneliness and alcohol consumption.

The holiday blues, like SAD, can be effectively combated by developing personal strategies and reaching out for help if necessary.

For more information about DBSA or seasonal depression, contact Elliot at 304-886-3612 or visit her office located at 213 W. Washington St.

More information for students can be found by visiting the counseling services link on the university web page.