It’s that time of year again – when the days become shorter and darkness falls in daylight hours. And just like clockwork, those cheerful optimistic feelings of warm summer days have darkened along with the weather.
Its natural for everyone to begin feeling a little melancholy when the days are short and cold. However for some people, seasonal change brings with it something more serious than the blues: seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that can be debilitating.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a genuine clinical condition, thought to be caused by decreased light exposure in winter. SAD also known as winter depression, winter blues, summer depression, summer blues, or seasonal depression, was considered a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or summer. (Reference Wikipedia)
Residents of parts of southern Australia, which suffer from high rainfall and long, dark days during winter, a simple case of the winter blues can turn into something more serious, according to Swinburne University Professor of Psychology, Greg Murray.
If your winter blues are severe and have gone on for at least two winters, you might have a case of SAD.
Could I have SAD or is winter just making me miserable?
What’s the difference between Sad and winter blues? The degree of dysfunction is key. People with Sad suffer setbacks in their relationships and at work as they withdraw from friends and loved ones, as energy flags and concentration falters; and they are significantly unhappier. People with the winter blues tend to manage with life’s basic demands, albeit with difficulty.
Not everyone with SAD has the same symptoms, but symptoms commonly associated with the “winter blues” include the following:
- Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
- Lost interest in usual activities,
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Inability to concentrate.
- Weight gain
- A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
- A drop in energy level
- Decreased physical activity
The difference though, is that these symptoms resolve each spring and tend to occur again in late fall.
Beat the Winter Blues – How to care for yourself throughout winter
Treatment approaches to alleviate the symptoms of SAD typically include combinations of light therapy, Vitamin D, and counselling. Although there are several ways to help manage the disorder and minimise its impact on wellbeing:
- Experience as much daylight as possible. The lack of sun exposure is part of what causes SAD and soaking up as much as you can, can lessen your symptoms. Sit by a window or get out for a walk during daylight hours. You could even take up a winter sport to get you outside and keep you moving.
- Eat healthily. Comfort foods don’t have to be loaded with extra calories and lots of sugar and fat. Get creative and look for hearty, low-calorie recipes that are easy to prepare. Instead of eating cake and cookies, try making a dessert from seasonal fruits like apples and pears.
- Spend time with your friends and family. Spending time with your friends and family is a great way to lift your spirits and avoid social isolation. Snuggle with your kids or pets; visit with your friends while drinking a hot cup of tea or play board games with your family. Friends and family can be good to talk to about how the season is affecting you. Take the time to educate them about SAD so they can better understand your situation.
- Stay active. Don’t stay cooped up in your house all winter. Get out and enjoy your community this season. Volunteer, join a local club, go for a walk or go ice skating with your loved ones to start. Also, if you know you experience SAD year after year, be proactive about planning out a schedule in advance of winter to keep active and engaged with others. Research shows exercise and scheduling pleasant activities can be effective ways to lessen the impact of SAD.
Seek professional help. If you continue to struggle with feelings of depression, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist. A psychologist can help determine if someone has seasonal affective disorder and how best to treat it. Research shows that psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, is an effective treatment for SAD, and may have more long-term benefits than light therapy – daily use of an artificial bright lamp – or antidepressant medication. (Reference APA Help Center )
How a psychologist can help
A psychologist can help you identify problem areas and then develop an action plan for changing them.
Psychologists are uniquely trained to understand the connection between the mind and body. They can offer strategies as to how to adjust your goals so that they are attainable, as well as help you change unhealthy behaviours and address emotional issues.
Interesting Facts on SAD:
- – Individuals with SAD report sleeping an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than in the summer. The general population sleeps 0.7 hours more in the winter.
- – SAD affects women and children more than men.
- – SAD is sometimes called “Winter Depression” or “Winter Blues”.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Revised
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
National Alliance of Mental Illness
National Institute of Mental Health
National Mental Health Association
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression research and treatment, 2015.