Every year around November I find myself with an uncomfortable, foreboding feeling. Let's face it; it's hard to get motivated to get out of bed when it's pitch black outside. And when it gets dark by 5 p.m., my instinct is to call it a day.
While many people, like myself, struggle with the increasing darkness, others face a much more debilitating problem each fall and winter. For every 100 people in the United States, as many as six suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, also known as the winter blues. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), SAD is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year get depressed in the winter. It happens to them year after year.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Symptoms of SAD often mirror those of major depressive disorder and include fatigue, overeating (particularly sweets and carbohydrates) that leads to weight gain, increased sleep, lack of energy, irritability, body aches and pains, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal from others, pessimism and suicidal thoughts.
As much as 20 percent of the U.S. population experiences winter blues. More people suffering from SAD live in northern states, particularly in New England, than in southern or western states.
Not surprisingly, SAD is very common in Scandinavian countries. The exception is Iceland. Researchers believe the unexpectedly low prevalence of SAD among Icelanders is due to genetic factors and their consumption of large amounts of fish high in vitamin D.
Possible Origin of SAD
In many animal species, activity diminishes in winter in response to the reduction in available food and the difficulties of surviving in cold weather. Hibernation is an extreme example of this. Likewise, humans display comparable behaviors during winter. With the seasonal reduction in sunlight, levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, become too low, and melatonin levels become too high. This change contributes to depressive symptoms and affects many people's sleep cycles.
Treatment for SAD
Light therapy has proven extremely effective in decreasing symptoms of SAD. By sitting in front of a light box for 30-60 minutes a day, preferably in the morning, light therapy reduces melatonin and increases serotonin levels. It should be noted, however, that tanning beds are not considered effective light boxes.
For some, the use of SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) anti-depressants, along with taking vitamin D supplements, can be effective in alleviating symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy also can reduce symptoms.
Practical Tips for Beating the Winter Blues
Here are some creative ways to lift your mood when the doldrums of winter get you down:
- Bake cookies.
- Curl up with a good book and a cup of your favorite hot drink.
- Plan what you'll plant in the spring.
- Write a letter, a blog post, or an article. Or start that novel you've been dreaming about.
- Research your family history.
- Do something with all those old photos you took before you got your digital camera.
- Volunteer with the United Way, a nursing home or some similar organization.
- Experiment with a new recipe.
- Listen to inspiring music.
- Start a fitness program.
- Hang a birdfeeder and watch its visitors.
- Remember the benefits of winter: relief from the extreme heat and humidity of summer, fewer bugs, fires in the fireplace, oven meals and snow.
- Count your blessings. Literally.
Finally, as poet Edith Sitwell so eloquently reminds us, "Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home."
For more information about this or other wellness-related topics, contact the RMH Employee Assistance Program at 437-8501 or 564-5960.
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