The trees are skeletal, the sky has faded into a dismal gray, and for much of the day the sun can barely drag itself above the horizon. As winter settles in and the days grow shorter, many of us get a down-in-the-dumps feeling sometimes referred to as the “winter blues.” When these blues won’t let up, day after day, they could signal a more serious, depression-like condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
“The symptoms of SAD are exactly the same as non-seasonal depression symptoms, which can include a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyed activities, excessive fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a significant change in sleep length and thoughts about death or suicide. The only difference with SAD is the seasonal pattern it follows,” psychologist and SAD expert Kelly Rohan, PhD, told the American Psychological Association. Some people even turn to alcohol or drugs for comfort.
People with SAD tend to hibernate in winter. They load up on carb-heavy comfort foods that make them gain weight, and struggle to crawl out from under the covers each morning. These symptoms aren’t concerning when they happen once in a while, but if they don’t let up day after day, they can start to interfere with your job, relationships, and life.
With the change in seasons comes a shift in our natural biological — or circadian — rhythms. “Some people are more sensitive to these changes,” says Frederick Brown, PhD, associate professor of psychology and director of the Human Performance Rhythms Laboratory at Penn State University. “It’s assumed to have a genetic component.”
The down mood is thought to stem from a hormone called melatonin, which our bodies produce just before bed to help us sleep. Shorter winter days trigger more melatonin production. Too little of another mood-altering brain chemical, serotonin, might also play a role.
About half a million Americans live with SAD symptoms during the winter months. Millions more have the milder winter blues. SAD is more common in women, and, not surprisingly, more likely to affect people who live in northern climates. If your mood stays dark from December to March, here are a few tips to help you overcome the SADness.
Because darkness triggers SAD symptoms, light is a good way to fix it. Exposure to light suppresses your brain’s melatonin production. If your symptoms are mild, taking an early morning walk or throwing the shades open in the a.m. may be enough to help. “Turn on a lot of lights in the morning,” says Brown. “Aim for the amount of light at 8 a.m. on a sunny June day.” For more severe SAD symptoms, experts recommend light therapy — sitting in front of a bright artificial light for at least 30 minutes each morning to reset your body’s normal rhythms and boost your mood.
Also effective is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a program in which you learn the skills to combat the negativity you feel in winter. Research finds CBT works as well as light therapy, and it may be easier to stick with.
“Adhering to the light therapy prescription upon waking for 30 minutes to an hour every day for up to five months in dark states can be burdensome,” said University of Vermont psychology professor, Kelly Rohan, PhD. Her research compared the two therapies, and found them equally effective for improving symptom severity, but CBT was better at preventing SAD from returning in future seasons.
Also be careful not to fall into the comfort foods trap. Though you might be craving sugar and carbs, they’ll only drag you down more. Eat foods that boost your energy. “Skip the sugary donuts and Danish and eat a high protein breakfast, which puts us in gear for the day,” Brown suggests.
January 25, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN