The holidays are meant to be a time of winter wonderlands and celebrating with friends and family. However, the winter is not a happy time for everyone. For some, the cold months tend to bring gloomy clouds and unhappy moods along with them. The shorter days and the change of weather can drain patients of their energy and leave them feeling tired and depressed. This is such a common phenomenon it even has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD can happen at any time of year, but it is especially common through the cold winter season. While doctors and experts are unsure what causes this temporary depression, there is reason to believe it is because of the shock to people’s circadian rhythms. When someone’s internal 24-hour clock gets thrown off while trying to adjust to shorter days and staying indoors more often, it can cause them to feel drowsy and more lethargic than usual.
Others believe that the shift in mood during the winter season is because of a disruption in hormones. Because of the lack of light during the winter, serotonin and melatonin, both of which help regulate sleep, mood, and energy-levels, could be at abnormal levels through the season.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 4-6 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from SAD, and 20 percent suffer from a milder form of seasonal depression during the holidays. The only thing worse than suffering from SAD is suffering from SAD while stuck in a hospital. Being cooped up in a hospital or nursing home can be an isolating and lonely experience for some patients, especially on Christmas, Hanukah or any other holiday. To lift your patients’ (not to mention your own) spirits during the holidays, here are some tips!
Let There Be Light
Light therapy is a great way to get your patients’ internal clocks back on track. During the day, be sure all of the shades are pulled back so that natural light can get into each room. Keeping the windows open at night can also be a great form of light therapy. If your patients are exposed to the sunset and the sunrise (even if they are still asleep), it can help keep their circadian rhythms on track.
When possible, the best light therapy can be to get your patients out in the sun. The winter months can be cold and harsh, but if a surprising sunny day, or even hour, presents itself, it can be a great time to get your patients outside to enjoy the sunlight. For patients who are too critical to go outside, light therapy boxes, which mimic natural sunlight using special florescent lightbulbs, have been proven extremely effective in treating SAD, bipolar depression, insomnia, and other conditions.
Aromatherapy can do wonders for people’s moods, and it can even help those suffering from SAD. Certain scents or essential oils can influence the part of the brain that controls stress, anxiety, happiness etc. According to the Journal of Natural Medicine, these aromas can even affect your sleep, appetite, memory, and improve depressive disorders. Some of the best scents to help lift spirits are rose, lavender, jasmine, and chamomile. If you have a patient who is struggling with seasonal depression over the holidays, see if they might like to have a candle or essential oil dispenser with one of these scents in their room. Even a spray of lavender air freshener may do the trick.
Exercise is also a great way to combat seasonal affective disorder. Outdoor exercise is the best option, since fresh air and natural light are also great ways to improve people’s moods, so if your patients are able, encourage them to take a stroll outside. Getting their muscles moving and hearts pumping, even just from a short walk, can do a lot to improve their mental and physical well-being. If outdoor exercise isn’t possible, encourage your patients to take a walk or do some light stretching indoors. Weight gain is a common symptom of SAD, and depression can often lead to muscle atrophy in chronically ill patients.
Encourage a Schedule
Those who struggle with seasonal affective disorder may have a hard time keeping a normal schedule. They may choose to or be required to sleep all day, which can worsen their depressive symptoms. It may seem unimportant to keep normal sleep and activity schedules while in the hospital, but often this is when it is actually the most vital for one’s well-being. Encourage patients to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at the same time each day. Using an alarm is a good way to help patients stay on track, and when you have free time, plan some fun activities they can do on their own or with other patients. Getting them into a routine will help to distract from the fact they are in a hospital and away from loved ones during the holidays.
Bring on the Holiday Cheer
Being stuck in a hospital throughout the holidays can feel lonely for some patients. Their families may live far away, or they might feel like they are missing out on important cultural practices. While you can’t recreate everyone’s special holiday traditions, you can bring a little holiday cheer to liven the mood. Decorating rooms, bringing small gifts or cards, wearing festive accessories with your scrubs, or making everyone a cup of hot cocoa can go a long way in lifting not only your patients’ spirits, but the staff’s as well.
Helping your patients stay in good spirits over the holidays can be a challenge. But hopefully these tips will help you think of small things you can do for those in your care to make this holiday season a joyous one for everyone. You never know; a little holiday cheer may just make someone’s day.