Battling the Wintertime Blues

Many people start feeling blue as the air turns chilly and the days get shorter. However, for some this seasonal change in mood is more serious and may require treatment. Seasonal Affective Disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, usually beginning in the fall and lasting until the spring. SAD is a cyclic, seasonal condition. This means that signs and symptoms come back and go away at the same time every year. Symptoms of winter-onset SAD include:

• Depressed mood that starts in the fall or winter (with remission in the spring and summer)
• Hopelessness
• Anxiety or irritability
• Loss of energy, especially in the afternoon
• Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
• Social withdrawal
• Oversleeping, including excessive daytime sleepiness
• Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
• Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
• Weight gain
• Difficulty concentrating and processing information

The specific cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is unknown. As with many mental health conditions, it is likely that genetics, age, and your body’s natural chemical makeup all play a role in developing the condition. A few specific factors that may come into play include:

• Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake. This disruption of your circadian rhythm may lead to feelings of depression.
• Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
• Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, perhaps leading to depression.

Treatment for SAD may include psychotherapy, antidepressant medication, and/or light therapy. In light therapy, also called phototherapy, you sit a few feet from a specialized light therapy box so that you’re exposed to bright light. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. This treatment is easy to use and seems to have few side effects. Before you purchase a light therapy box or consider light therapy, talk to your doctor or mental health provider to make sure it’s a good idea and to make sure you’re getting a high-quality light therapy box.

Psychotherapy is another option to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Although SAD is thought to be related to biochemical processes, your thoughts, feelings, and behavior also can impact symptoms. Psychotherapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse. You can also learn healthy ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder and manage stress.
Additionally, there are several things you can do on your own to improve your mood if the winter blahs are upon you:

• Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, add skylights and trim tree branches that block sunlight. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
• Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
• Exercise regularly. Physical exercise helps relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too, which can lift your mood.
• Socialize. When you’re feeling down, it can be hard to be social. Make an effort to connect with people you enjoy being around.
• Take a trip. If possible, take winter vacations in sunny, warm locations if you have winter-onset SAD.
• Try mind-body therapies. These can include acupuncture, Yoga, meditation, or massage therapy.

Don’t brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own — you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. If the wintertime blues have become more serious and you are having difficulty going about your day-to-day activities because you are feeling too down, you may need to talk with your doctor or mental health professional about the issue. Addressing the problem can help you keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.

Melissa K. Hunt, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
December 13, 2010