Do you Have the January Blues?
And so it is January again.
We live in the northern hemisphere, on a small island on the North East periphery of Europe, which is rain lashed a good deal of the time, especially these past few weeks. Our winter officially begins in November and ends in April. However, from September onwards we notice the days getting shorter, the nights longer, and temperatures dropping. Unfortunately, as this happens, some of us become depressed. Dr Harry Barry, a director of AWARE, classifies depression into two types: Depression with a small d, and Depression with a big D.
The majority of people with depression will suffer from the less severe form, with the small d. But a smaller number will suffer from a full-blown depression with a big D, and need specific treatment. One of the causes of depression with a small d is the change in season and accompanying reduction of exposure to light. Some of us suffer from a range of symptoms, including depressed mood, increased appetite, extreme fatigue, and a sheer loss of joy in our lives, so that we become unable to appreciate any of the good things that are happening around us. This seasonal deterioration in mood, along with the other symptoms, is now referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD for short.
It seems directly linked to the deprivation of light which happens each winter. If Christmas hadn’t been instituted in times past by the early Romans, who called the feast Saturnalia, a celebration to mark the end of autumn, someone would have had to invent it. How else could we cope with winter’s long succession of shorter days and longer and colder nights? Subverted as it was by Christians, and now a mixum gatherum of different traditions, Christmas is a feast that gives us a break from the utter dreariness of winter.
Sadly, some of us find it difficult to cope with Christmas, having unreal expectations of what we should do and be around Christmas time. We demand of ourselves that we have the perfect present for everyone, that our children, our houses and ourselves be polished, pristine and perfect. We aspire to having family gatherings without any acrimony or disagreement. In short, we expect to look like the Christmas ads on TV.
How realistic are these expectations? Think about it for a minute, perfection doesn't exist. If you're putting this pressure on yourself, and you are also suffering from symptoms of SAD, you are going to feel even worse. So, if you feel low at this time of year during and post-Christmas, are sleeping and eating excessively, experiencing no joy in life, even losing interest in sex - how can you cope with feeling like this?
If your symptoms are mild, talking to a friend might help, as can getting some exercise. A walk if weather permits, a swim if you are near a hotel or complex with a pool, a bike ride, or a session at the gym would be a great help. If you can’t get through it, and are feeling intolerably low, go and talk to your GP. You may need a short course of medication to boost your mood. St John's Wort, a remedy of herbal origin with some antidepressant features, may be enough to lift your feelings of depression and sadness. This medication, available only on prescription, is called Pacifa, and is suitable for those with mild depression.
If you are badly depressed your doctor will discuss with you which medication would be best for you. And my message to all of you moms out there is to do your best. As I have said for years, a mother’s place is in the wrong! You want to get absolutely everything right but the aim is not to be perfect, but to be good enough. You already have the perfect ingredients to be good enough - you and your family.
Written by Dr Mary Rogan, GP specialising in mental health, Co Galway, for eumom.ie