It seems to be true in at least 6% of the American population, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, with 70-80% of the sufferers being women. Most of us tend to get the winter blahs, however “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) affects millions each year around the world, with symptoms often beginning as early as October and sometimes not abating until April; the most problematic months being December-February. For the ex-pat the symptoms may increase due to anxiety related to separation from family during the holidays. But SAD is not as related to cold temperatures as it is to the reduced amount of daylight during the winter months, especially for those living beyond 30 degrees latitude. Seasonal changes apparently cause a disruption to our “circadian rhythm,” or internal biological clock, similar to some animal’s hibernation patterns. The reduced light appears to have physiological effects resulting in what is often referred to as “winter onset depression.”
The symptoms of SAD include:
- Mood changes; including depression
- Low energy, fatigue, lethargy
- Changes in sleep patterns; usually excessive sleeping
- Changes in eating; usually craving carbohydrates and sugar, as “comfort foods,” resulting in weight gain
- Difficulties with close relationships; less time socializing
As with other forms of depression, the symptoms of SAD may range from mild to severe, with the mild form causing few if any disruptions to daily life, and severe symptoms being more problematic and disruptive.
The most popular treatment for SAD is “phototherapy” otherwise known as “light therapy” utilizing… light! Under the guidance of a trained therapist, patients are exposed to a specific amount/quality of light, using a “light box.” If you believe you may have SAD, and/or are prone to depression, you should seek professional help.
- Increase the light in your home, office, work environment. This may be as simple as opening the curtains and placing additional lamps in the room.
- Get some aerobic exercise… especially outdoors if possible. Exercise is a natural mood enhancer and doing it outside will increase your exposure to light even on an overcast day.
- Watch your diet and resist indulging in excessive carbs and sweets.
- Talk to someone (ideally a professional therapist/counselor) to help process changes in mood/activity especially as it relates to inter-personal relationships.
- Be aware of and effectively manage stress levels.
- Under a doctor’s care, you may consider an anti-depressant medication or dietary supplement, such as “St. John’s Wort” (Rosenthal, 2006).
Ultimately, it is helpful to recognize the natural changes taking place and accept them as a reality of how God created us. Oftentimes, our stress and depressive symptoms are increased when we feel we are not meeting expectations (others’ or our own). Take permission to offer yourself and others some “wintertime grace,” lean on the “Light,” and remember that the sun really will come out again!
Note: Again, if your symptoms are more severe and effecting your ability to function normally on a daily basis, seek professional help. You may consult a therapist (if available), or medical doctor in your area. If you have questions, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or to leave a comment below. —tom
American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/mentalhealth/depression/267.printerview.html
National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1450113/
Rosenthal, N.E. (2006). Winter Blues: Everything you need to know to beat seasonal affective disorder. New York: Guilford Press.