The holiday season is filled with gift shopping, parties and family gatherings. For many people, this time of year is a happy, fun-filled time. For others, it is a stressful or even depressing time of year.
Steve Brannon, state director of DBSA Tennessee (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) said seasonal affective disorder can affect people in different ways. Some people start to feel the effects of SAD when the days start getting shorter and colder.
“For some people when fall starts, that’s when it starts setting in,” he said. “For people with clinical depression, they have a chemicalimbalance and can have depression at any time because of the chemical imbalance.”
People with the seasonal disorder can treat it with medications also, but some people can be helped by taking dietary supplements such as St. John’s wort, exercising outside and going for walks, Brannon said. A light box — a device that has a bulb that gives off UV waves to simulate daylight — works for other SAD sufferers.
“Get online, and you can find them easily,” he said. “Some people can have short periods of SAD off and on til the spring. Others can have it set in and have all the symptoms of depression and can be irritable at times and angry, without energy and have difficulty concentrating. They can have difficulty with sleeping and eating either a lot or little.”
Those who believe they suffer from SAD can seek out a doctor’s help and get medication and by springtime go off the drugs, Brannon said.
“Everyday folk can have situational depression; not many get that over the holidays,” he said.
“Those who have predisposition for depression would have the most difficulty with holiday depression. The expectations put on people and the demands of the holidays equals out to be the enemy of anyone with a mood disorder.”
The stress of the holidays is the enemy. When people become stressed at Thanksgiving or Christmas, they can get into a “full-blown depression,” Brannon said.
“Some of the demands required to be around family — that can be difficult thing for folks with a mood disorder,” he said. “Even doing all the cleaning and the work, buying groceries and cooking can bring on a lot of stress. It can really make people wish the holidays didn’t come around ever.”
If a person gets too tired, that can help pull that person into depression because the body is doing so much — even if that person is having fun, Brannon said.
“They’re staying up late, not eating properly, so that’s still stressful,” he said. “When a person starts thinking, ‘Christmas is coming. I’ve got children and grandchildren coming. I just can’t get into the Christmas spirit, don’t feel it.’ Then they get to thinking, ‘I’m feeling bad at this time of year when I should be feeling happy.’ Then they start to feel worse, and it starts being self-perpetual.”
People with mood disorders are more sensitive to these emotions but are affected differently, Brannon said. When depression starts coming in, it becomes hard to make decisions and can easily turn into a problem. Some people even decide to not spend time with family and have chosen to isolate themselves.
“Sometimes just the thought starts pulling people down,” he said.
Pepper Pratt, a licensed professional counselor and mental health service provider, agrees the holiday season can be an overwhelmingly stressful time for those who suffer from mood disorders — seasonal or not.
At Creekside Center for Depression and TMS in Jackson, Pratt offers another type of treatment for those suffering from mood disorders. TMS is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which he has been using to help some of his patients.
“TMS was cleared by the FDA in 2008, and we’ve had it for almost a year,” Pratt said. “I’ve treated about 15 patients using this method. It’s a six-week long program. The patient comes five days a week for six weeks. Each treatment is 40 minutes. They can drive themselves to and from their appointments — there are no side effects.”
The treatment involves having the patient lie back in a reclining chair while a magnetic device is placed on the left side of the head near the frontal cortex of the brain. Pratt said this MRI-like technology targets the part of the brain that controls mood.
“When you’re depressed, your neurons shut down and cease to fire,” he said. “TMS uses a small current to wake the neurons up, which causes them to fire again. It will work when medications don’t.”
The limbic system of the brain — which support the emotional and behavioral functions — is near the frontal cortex, where the magnetic currents are targeted. The neurons communicate with the limbic system, which is like “opening a gate” to a better life, Pratt said.
“Anti-depressants boost the flow of serotonin between the neurons,” he said. “Depression happens because serotonin is not produced. Neurons go into overload, shut down and go dark. When medications don’t work and don’t boost serotonin levels, we can target the frontal cortex. It’s like going in the back door.”
Pratt, who has been a counselor for 20 years, offers the TMS treatment in addition to counseling and medication. He said combining this new method with traditional ones has led to success for his patients.
TMS could be used to treat seasonal affective disorder or any chronic depression that isn’t responding to medication.