Fighting the Winter Blues

Mental & Behavioral Health February 19, 2020
Seasonal affective disorder

Chicago winters can be brutal. While the holiday season can provide distractions from the snow and freezing temperatures, the gloomy days often drag on well after the New Year.

The winter months can be particularly bad for those with the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). About 14% of Americans get the winter blues, while 6% wrestle with full-blown SAD, a recurrent type of depression associated with the change in seasons. It typically starts in the fall and persists through the winter months.

While most of January 2020 in the Chicago area was unseasonably warm, residents had to contend with a different type of winter beast: lack of sunlight. The area only saw two sunny days – days with 70% or more sunshine – the entire month.

This lack of sunlight can worsen symptoms for those who experience SAD. As the gloom continues and the cold and snow persists, it’s a good time to learn how to recognize signs of SAD and know what steps you can to take manage your winter mood.

Do I have SAD, or is it just the winter blues?

While the winter can take a toll on your mood, it might not mean you have full-blown SAD. Colder, darker days can leave you feeling more lethargic overall and more gloomy than usual, but the winter blues shouldn’t hinder your ability to enjoy life.

You may be experiencing SAD if your mood starts to invade into all aspects of your life, including work and relationships. "SAD can be debilitating for some people," says Joyce Corsica, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rush. "And if you're suffering from it, it's important to get help."

So how do know if you have SAD, and why does it happen?

The causes of SAD are unknown, but research has found some biological clues:

  • People with SAD may have trouble regulating one of the key neurotransmitters involved in mood, serotonin.
  • People with SAD may overproduce the hormone melatonin.
  • People with SAD also may produce less vitamin D.

 "All of these factors can have a direct impact on your mood," Corsica says. "And if you're having mood difficulties, other things can start to fall apart too.

Risk factors for SAD can include:

  • Being female — SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than men.
  • Living far from the equator - SAD is more frequent in people who live far north or south of the equator.
  • Younger age — Younger adults have a higher risk of SAD than older adults. SAD has been reported even in children and teens.

Symptoms for the winter blues include general sadness and a lack of energy as well as:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling less social than usual
  • Feeling constantly fatigued and lethargic
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Having suicidal thoughts

What can I do to treat my SAD?

There are a variety of treatments and lifestyle changes that can help you get a leg up on both the winter blues and SAD. Most importantly, don’t ignore you symptoms.

If you are experiencing depressive symptoms — including mild ones that may be associated with winter blues — talk to your primary care doctor or a psychologist to discuss your options.

A majority of people who are experiencing symptoms will see a doctor when they think there is something wrong physically. Diagnostic tests, such as a blood test to check your vitamin D levels or a complete blood count, can rule out other causes of these symptoms.

Thankfully there is an array of evidence-based treatments to choose from. Talk with your doctor about the following treatments:

  • Sunlight: It's important to get outside whenever the sun is out during these darker days. Exposing yourself to natural light will help boost serotonin production and your overall mood.
  • Light therapy: As the current standard of care for SAD, light therapy replicates natural light with light boxes, which use white fluorescent bulbs to mimic sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down.
  • Exercise: Research consistently shows a strong exercise-mental health connection, particularly for those with depression and anxiety. That's why experts often refer to exercise as nature's antidepressant. Exercise can increase serotonin and endorphins, which both affect mood. Moderate exercise of at least 30 minutes most days of the week may provide the biggest mood boost.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy, actually can be a more effective long-term treatment for SAD than light therapy. While more research is needed in this area, cognitive-behavioral therapy is clinically proven to be extremely beneficial for all types of depression.
  • Medication: If more conservative treatments are not providing adequate relief, you may need antidepressants to regulate the chemical imbalances associated with the winter blues and SAD. While you may be able to taper off the medication as you head into spring, it is important to talk to your prescribing doctor before making any changes to your medication or dosage.

Along with talking to your physician about treatments for the winter blues and SAD, a change in lifestyle can go a long way in it prevention. Keeping a regular schedule during the winter can both keep your hormones in balance and regulate your mood. It is important to tell your physician if you have or may have bipolar disorder before beginning treatment. 

Staying social

Keeping a regular schedule includes going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day to normalize your circadian rhythms. Eating at the same time each day can also help in regulating your schedule.

Finally, making plans with friends and family and staying social is vital to not falling into SAD. Staying connected with the people closest in your life is a great mood booster and can help get you out of a winter funk.

It is important to remember to take time for yourself and continue to engage in activities you enjoy. Whether this be taking a trip or making the effort to get out of the house for moment. While it may seem hard to get out during the winter months, making sure you continue to do things that you love is an important piece of staying out of a depression during the winter.

SAD is more complicated than wanting to hunker down and stay in for the night. It’s not just cursing the snow or wanting summer to hurry up and get here. While it at first it may seem harmless, it can take a serious toll on a person’s life.

Don’t let SAD take away your ability to enjoy life. Talk to your doctor and see if treatment or lifestyle change is the right choice for you.

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