posted: Jun. 23, 2019.
Winter blues. We know the term. We know the season. This is both an exhilarating and challenging time of year. The days are short, the nights are long, and the cold get to us in ways that make it feel as though we do not want to do anything. It is that feeling of a constant low mood, lack of energy, lethargy and lack of appetite. Winter blues is not just a feeling, it is also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is identified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a major depressive disorder. SAD typically occurs during winter, although some people experience seasonal affective disorder in the summer; moreover, according the National Institute for Mental Health, at least fourteen percent of the American population meet the criteria for SAD.
But just how was SAD discovered? After moving from South Africa, to the states about forty years ago, psychiatrist Normal Rosenthal, a researcher for the National Institute for Mental Health, reported feeling symptoms of depression during the Atlantic winter. He joined forces with a Washington Post writer to introduce his discovery in the Post, inviting readers to share their story. He expected a few responses at most. Instead, 3,000 responses flooded in from all over the country—his phone ringing for days. Inspired, in 1984, Rosenthal, examined communities in Maryland, New York, Florida, and New Hampshire for evidence of seasonal mood changes. He and his colleague discovered the winter blues of feeling irritable and moody in winter impacted a sizeable number of people.
Researchers determined that a lack of light affects the part of the brain that controls sleep, appetite, mood, and activity levels. Winter’s reduced sunlight affects our circadian rhythms and sparks our brains to produce more melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep patterns. An
overdose of melatonin, even naturally-occurring, can lead to depression or depressive symptoms. Many with SAD may experience constant low mood, decreased energy, strong food cravings, and weight gain. Others may feel always tired and experience difficulty motivating themselves to get out of bed. Just like non-seasonal depression, SAD can greatly impact personal relationships, performance at school or work, and interest in daily life and activities. Symptoms of SAD typically start to show in fall or winter and persist until spring or summer.
What can you do about seasonal affective disorder? First, it is knowing you are not alone. Others also experience winter blues. Knowing about the existence of winter blues means there are ways to overcome the symptoms. Taking in natural sunlight and the relevant vitamins and minerals can increase your natural production of melatonin and help regulate your circadian rhythm, which will increase your overall mood. Seeking professional help, with treatments that can include light therapy to reset the biological clock, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication are also methods proven to decrease SAD symptoms. Eating healthy and adjusting your diet can help with appetite. Identifying one to three activities you want to accomplish will help increase your motivation to get out of bed and fight off the lethargy. Finally, surrounding yourself with friends, family, and community helps remind you that you are not alone, you are loved and you are wanted. Reach out to your spouse, parents, children, friends and remind yourself, with their help, that there are warmer days ahead.