I went to college in upstate New York, where the winters can be extremely long and frigid. For six long months, everywhere you look, it's grey. Couple that with stress, and days with sunlight that lasts only until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and you've got a fine recipe for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The Winter Blues
I love winter, but seeing grey skies and cold weather day after day can have an effect. You might have a case of the 'winter blues' if you experience:
- sluggishness or notice a decline in productivity
- decreased enthusiasm
- depressed mood
- increased appetite
- decreased energy
People experiencing the winter blues tend to sleep on average an extra 1-2 hours than during the summer months.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Winter blues can turn into full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, when the symptoms become more severe and cause more interference in daily life. In addition to the above symptoms, you might have SAD if you:
- have difficulty concentrating
- find yourself withdrawing from friends and family
- have feelings of hopelessness
- experience a marked loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
Such as with the winter blues, folks suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder also tend to sleep an extra 2-3 hours. Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. It can also interfere with work or school productivity.
Prevention and Treatment Options
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent and treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Prevention and treatment may include:
Be Self-Aware - Do you find yourself withdrawing from people? Is your interest in your usual activities declining? Try to listen to your body and notice symptoms of seasonal affective disorder before they get worse.
Regular Exercise - Sweat out the winter blues! Even if you don't feel like it, put on those work out clothes and try starting with a brisk walk or ten minute warm up. Once I get started, I figure I might as well keep going. Give it a try! You'll find your mood lifted and your body more energized.
Diet - Oh, I know it's tough with those holidays. I can't resist the cheesecake and pumpkin pie my dad makes every year. Healthy diet is always important - you are what you eat, right? There's still no harm in indulging yourself every now and then, however, so don't beat yourself up if you slide off the track. In fact, many people tend to do better with their healthy diets if they allow themselves a cheat treat. The danger, however, lies in the slippery slope of all or nothing thinking: "Oh, I've already blown my diet, might as well go all the way." Stick to eating balanced meals and your mind and body will thank you.
Light Therapy - You may have heard sunlight plays a role in happier moods. In short, sunlight helps boost serotonin, a natural antidepressant. Shorter days in the winter may also mess with our biological clocks, which can contribute to the winter depression. So, psychologists created light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a "light box" for 30 minutes to 2 hours per day for the duration of the symptoms. You might start to feel better anywhere between 3 days to 2 weeks. If you're curious about what these light boxes look like, you can see some examples in this article.
Counseling - Visiting a therapist or joining a support group for people with depression (there are also online support groups for people specifically with Seasonal Affective Disorder, too). Your therapist can also help motivate you to maintain certain behavioral goals, such as making sure you visit with a friend, or doing one exercise that week, and so on. If individual therapy isn't your cup of tea, you could also consider joining an interest group, such as knitting, or a jogging group, that could help you stay motivated and prevent withdrawing.
Antidepressants - There are a plethora of antidepressants available on the market. If none of the above options seem to work for you, talk with your doctor about prescribing some antidepressants for the winter.