Snowflakes, brisk walks, and winter sports inspire some people to feel alive and active this time of year while others hunker down and hibernate during colder months. Some people blame their sluggish mood on holiday stress and seasonal illnesses but there is a possibility that something else is going on. It could be a particular form of depression that hits only during the wintertime called Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD] and it is different from winter blues.
“Winter blues” are very common feelings of tension and sadness that are experienced throughout the winter months, usually starting in November and ending in March. Winter blues are often caused by holiday stress (it’s a real thing!) and usually improve immediately after New Year’s with little to no treatment.
On the other hand, SAD involves feelings of sadness, fatigue, hopelessness, and irritability. Occurring year after year during the winter, SAD is more severe because it interferes with normal activities, can last longer, and may need more aggressive treatment to resolve. SAD is thought to be brought on by the change in season, shorter daylight hours, longer nights, colder temperatures, and once again, tension and stress. Unlike winter blues, which is not a medical diagnosis, SAD is a form of depression that needs to be identified and treated by a doctor. Regardless, in both cases, there are several things that can be done to help turn things around or prevent it before it happens.
- Spend time outside on sunny days (at least 30 minutes), routinely exercise (30 minutes most days of the week), and stay active before, during and after the winter months. Travel to a sunny location after the holidays and before the arrival of spring.
- Many people have found that yoga, massage therapy, meditation, and positive thinking effectively improve their mood. In fact, simply smiling (even if you’re faking it) can ignite the same mood receptors and release pleasure hormones as if you were sincerely smiling. A change in your actions leads to a change in attitude. Fake it ‘til you make it!
- Getting dark by 5pm can alter sleep patterns and melatonin levels–one major factor in the development of SAD. To combat this, one of the most effective treatments is light therapy. Avoiding dark rooms and adding bright lighting is considered ideal treatment.
- Volunteer! Winter is the perfect time to help others and volunteering can improve stress levels as well.
- If the depression continues or worsens, prescription antidepressants are effective and can be added to lifestyle modifications. Encourage friends and family members who become withdrawn to visit their primary care provider if you suspect SAD.