The holidays are over, the lights are down, you’re already tanking on your New Year’s resolutions and you’re feeling glum. You just weighed yourself and realized that the fruitcake you hate, but ate anyway, has given you an additional five pounds. You feel hopeless as you dig your car out of the snow in the freezing temperatures to get to work in the dark. You sigh as you exit your office in the evening, realizing you haven’t seen the sun all day. Then you really feel depressed when you realize there are still two to three months of winter left.
If this sounds familiar, you could be suffering from the usual winter blues along with the rest of us. Cold weather, short days, the come down from the holiday season and the revving up of the flu season all conspire to make January, February, and even March some of the most miserable months of the year. Are you struggling with the typical winter blahs or do you have something more serious?
What is SAD?
Maybe you’ve heard of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, or maybe this is a new concept, but it’s true that you can have a very real and serious mood disorder related to the seasons. SAD is a kind of depression that sets in sometime in the winter, or even late fall, and usually lasts until spring starts to warm and light the earth again. SAD is more than just the typical winter blues. Here are some of the symptoms you might experience:
- Feeling depressed, worthless, and hopeless, most of the time
- Lack of energy, fatigue
- Sleeping more than is normal
- Difficulty concentrating
- Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight as a result
- Losing interest in normal activities
- Irritability, especially when interacting with others
- A heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- Being hypersensitive, especially to the comments and reactions of other people
Why SAD? Why Me?
As with major depression and other mental health disorders, there is no single, definite cause for SAD. We do know that it is seasonal and that it is related to natural changes caused by the seasons. For instance, not seeing the sun as often in the winter may play a role in the onset of SAD. It may be that the extra darkness disrupts your circadian rhythm, or your biological clock. We also know that lack of sunlight causes levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, to drop in your brain. Serotonin affects mood and the drop off could be a trigger that starts depression.
Certain people are more vulnerable to suffering from SAD than others. While your best friend might feel a little sulky about the shorter days and the miserably cold weather, you get full-blown SAD. It’s impossible to predict with certainty who will get SAD, but there are risk factors. Being younger, female, having a family history of SAD or depression, and of course, living in the colder climates all put you at a greater risk.
There is Hope for SAD
The good news in all of this is that there are treatments for SAD. If you think you might be struggling with this, see your doctor. You can try light therapy, which makes use of a light that mimics the sun to brighten your mood and get your neurotransmitter levels back in balance. Exercise and getting outdoors more often also help, as do other healthy lifestyle practices like eating well and getting enough sleep. If these changes aren’t enough your doctor may suggest pscyotherapy or antidepressants.
Winter sucks, at least if you live somewhere cold enough to know what a wind chill factor is. It doesn’t have to hurt as much as SAD hurts, though. If you are feeling miserable beyond what is typical for January, February or March, get some help. You can beat this, and remember, spring is just around the corner.