The Myth of Merry and Bright

The holiday season is filled with images of happy people and beautiful lights. Children laugh and play, families enjoy a homemade meal together, and there are always gifts under the Christmas tree. Everything appears perfect.


Except when it’s not. Despite these messages, this concept of a bright, joyful winter season may not be our natural tendency. It is definitely not a universal concept.


Let’s think about what this pattern does in nature. Animals begin to hibernate. The metabolic rate slows. Finding food becomes more challenging in the wild, and so animals eat whatever they find. Humans – being very advanced animals – have the same tendencies. We want to go straight home at the end of the day because it’s cold and dark. We tend toward heavier, more calorie-rich foods.


Then there’s the circadian rhythm. This is the body’s sleep-wake cycle that is often more or less tied to the sun’s cycles. In general, people sleep more during the winter. We’re outside less and thus exposed to less sunlight. Less sunlight exposure means less serotonin, which can lead to mild states of depression.


And lastly, we should remember that not everyone has the friends or family to make these idyllic images of winter come true. Many people spend the holidays alone, some by choice and some by circumstance. Being alone while simultaneously being inundated with images of gathering around the fireplace with loved ones can be quite upsetting.


Seasonal affective disorder is characterized as depression that gets worse during the fall and winter months, then gets better in the spring and summer. The further from the equator we are, the more prevalent it becomes. For example, in the US it is estimated that 1% of residents of Florida experience symptoms versus 9% of residents of Alaska. The good news is there are several things that can be done to relieve the symptoms:

  1. Recognize it for what it is. In ancient Nordic culture, the longest night of the year – the winter solstice – was celebrated to welcome the rebirth of the deity and the lengthening of the days. The recognition that the darkness was coming to an end was cause for celebration. However it could also be a reverent time. Darkness offers a time of introspective reflection. Amidst the gift giving and activity of the season, consider taking some time to quietly reflect on the past year and hopes for the year to come. Honor the cold days and long, dark nights for what they are.
  2. Get involved. If you struggle with loneliness, the holiday season can be miserable. Consider connecting with an organization or a volunteer opportunity. Many non-profit organizations are in dire need of volunteers during this time of year.
  3. If you can’t go to the sun, bring the sun to you. Traveling to sunny, tropical destinations is another option but may not be available to many of us. An alternative is to consider purchasing a light box. Exposure to bright light stimulates vitamin D and serotonin production, both of which are instrumental in improving mood. A simple light box can help with this. They can be purchased online. If that’s not an option either, try turning on all the lights in your home when you wake up in the morning. Though some say sunlight is best, any bright light is sufficient to stimulate hormone production.
  4. Talk it out. Working with a cognitive behavioral therapist to create individualized strategies for managing low moods has been shown to be as if not more effective as use of a light box. It has the added benefit of teaching you life-long strategies for addressing low moods, thus giving longer-lasting effects.


Remember it’s natural to feel down during the holidays. We have both social and biological factors working against us during this time of year. That doesn’t mean you have to suffer through it. To get started, call the CBT Counseling Centers at 828-350-1177.

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