The holiday season is often touted as the most wonderful time of year.
But for many people, the festivities are marred by stress, anxiety and depression.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 5 Americans have mental conditions like depression and anxiety.
Dr. Vinay Nagaraj, a psychiatrist at Laurelwood at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said depression and anxiety are the two most commonly seen mental illnesses during the winter months.
Nagaraj said the holiday season can often make pre-existing mental conditions worse.
“The holiday season itself is very stressful because of all the pressures to buy gifts for everyone; there’s financial stress and the stress of family and making sure you entertain them well,” Nagaraj said.
People with anxiety disorders may find their symptoms become worse as the holidays roll around because they’re involved in more situations that trigger their anxiety or panic attacks.
While holiday stress plays a significant role in mental illnesses, the cold, dreary winter weather could be another culprit.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that occurs at a certain time of year, often in the winter but it can also occur in the summer.
The symptoms of SAD mimic the symptoms of major depressive disorder and include sleeping more, eating more or less and withdrawing from social situations.
SAD is directly related to the amount of sunlight a person gets. The shorter days of winter can cause the brain’s level of serotonin, an important chemical that helps to regulate mood, to become unregulated.
The disorder is most common in northern areas of the globe but that doesn’t mean people in the south are not affected, Nagaraj said.
Treatments for SAD may include medication and counseling but many people find light therapy works well for them. Light therapy involves using a light box in the morning to mimic outdoor light.
However, Nagaraj urges patients to discus light therapy with a doctor before purchasing an over-the-counter light box. The therapy may make symptoms of other mental illness, like bipolar disorder, worse.
For the person experiencing these and other mental illnesses it may seem like everyone else is aware of their emotional state, but that isn’t always the case.
“It’s easy to miss because we’re all so busy in the winter months,” Nagaraj said.
However, some symptoms may be easier to spot if families are aware of what to look for.
“If you notice changes in one’s personality — they’re not as outgoing and are making excuses to isolate, their sleep patterns are changing, they’re more distracted, irritable and agitated — those could be red flags,” Nagaraj said.
Other symptoms that could easily be looked over include self-medicating and missing health care appointments.
Nagaraj said while more patients present symptoms during the winter, there are also more patients skipping or canceling their doctor appointments. The reasons given are often because there are more social obligations but could be because the patient is trying to withdraw from social situations.
An increased use of alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs could also be more easily overlooked during the holidays because there are more parties and social functions where, alcohol particularly, is more readily available.
The holidays also cause people who have experienced the loss of a loved one to grieve more intensely.
Nagaraj said it’s perfectly healthy for a loved one to bring out items that belonged to the person who died and to speak about them more frequently. He said the first year after a loss is the hardest and survivors are at an increased risk for suicide.
Families can do a lot to help a loved one through a loss by simply listening and providing support.
However, if a person is thought to be a risk to themselves or to others, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. A trained counselor can be reached at The National Suicide Prevention hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
While it’s often difficult for people with depression or anxiety to believe their condition can improve with treatment, the CDC reports that most people who receive treatment do improve. The sooner a patient seeks treatment the more effective it will be.
Nagaraj encourages anyone who is experiencing the symptoms of a mental illness to see a doctor.
Some people may feel too ashamed to seek help or feel put off by seeing a mental health professional.
In that case, Nagaraj said individuals may be more comfortable speaking with a religious leader who may be able to provide spiritual and emotional support.
He said it’s important to remember that these and other mental conditions are nothing to be embarrassed about.
“They are actually a biological disease, they’re an illness. It’s not due to a lack of willpower. It’s no different than any other chronic illness,” Nagaraj said.