Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Winter Blues

When we hear the phrase “dark winter of the soul”, we instinctively imagine a dark, slow, or even depressed time. Lack of sunlight can darken our mood during the winter months by triggering symptoms of seasonal affective disorder or SAD, a type of depression that may be debilitating in its most severe form.

Reduced exposure to sunlight affects our natural body rhythms, sleep-wake cycle, and brain chemicals that regulate mood. Norman Rosenthal M.D., a leader in the research and treatment of SAD, estimates that 5% of the U.S. population experience severe versions of SAD, and as many as 14% report symptoms of the “winter blues.”

Seasonal affective disorder and the “winter blues” share similar symptoms, but differ in their effect on relationships and work performance. For example, the “winter blues” may interfere with completing extra projects or initiating social events, but symptoms of SAD may result in frequent absences from work or emotional isolation from friends and family.

We can all feel down after a bad day or a disappointing conversation, but a visit with a qualified mental health professional or physician is in order if you experience any or all of the following symptoms throughout most of your days:

  • Low energy or lethargy
  • Feel “foggy” and unable to remain alert
  • Have difficulty staying focused, remembering information, or completing tasks
  • Feel down or depressed most of the day
  • Change in sleep pattern, usually a desire for more sleep
  • Show an increase in appetite and/or weight gain
  • Crave more sweets and starches than usual
  • Show a diminished ability to handle stressful situation
  • Feel less motivated to follow through with daily activities or extra commitments such as socializing, working longer or initiating new projects

Treatment of SAD

Successful treatment of SAD usually includes a form of light therapy known as phototherapy. The purpose of light therapy is to restore the sleep-wake cycle and rebalance mood-regulating brain chemicals associated with depression. Treatment typically involves exposure to a light box designed to treat symptoms of SAD. Most phototherapy regimens require twenty minutes of light exposure every morning during the winter months, but depending on your particular set of symptoms, your mental health professional may prescribe a different time of day and duration of exposure.

While it’s true that you can buy a light box at your local hardware store, a professional consultation is not only important to determine your most effective regimen, but to rule out the possibility that you may be suffering from a more severe depression or other health condition. In addition to phototherapy, dietary changes, psychotherapy, stress management, as well as exercise are known to improve symptoms of SAD.

Even though some depressive symptoms are truly related to seasonal changes, our assumptions may worsen our symptoms. As humans, we expect too much of ourselves. We expect that no matter the temperature, season, or climate, we should maintain our frantic pace without missing a beat. We can learn from our friends in the animal kingdom who instinctively know to slow down, huddle up, or migrate to a sunny destination. Flowing, instead of fighting with our natural rhythms grants us the opportunity to align with our environment, and renew ourselves for the dawn of spring.