It’s January, and since we’re Yankees (and especially Syracusans), we know what January is synonymous with snow and ice, challenging driving conditions, lack of sunlight, and, in some cases, affected emotional states. And, as Yankees do, we bundle up, hunker down, fill our pantries, mount our snow tires and start packing for winter break destinations as close to the equator as possible.
But, what about those who experience a lot of “down days?” That’s not as easy a fix. For some, January brings the post-holiday blues as life returns to the same old daily grind. And for others, what might initially seem like the post-holiday blues is actually a more severe form of depression. Living in the northern hemisphere, you’ve probably heard about seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? Many people think SAD is just the “winter blues” and jokingly blame their carb loading on the weather. And while there is a connection, SAD is nothing to joke about—it’s actually a subtype of major depression or bipolar disorder. In most cases, SAD symptoms start appearing in the late fall or early winter and dissipate in spring and summer when we (hopefully!) have sunnier days. But, there are others who experience the opposite pattern with symptoms beginning in the spring or summer. Regardless, while they might seem to be mild at first, symptoms can become much more severe as the season progresses.
So, what are these symptoms? According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms specific to fall/winter-onset SAD, may include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
Symptoms of major depression may be part of SAD as well, including: feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; feeling hopeless or worthless; losing interest in activities you once enjoyed; having difficulty concentrating; and having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
Over the years I’ve known people who have diagnosed themselves with SAD and chosen what they thought might be an effective treatment. Sometimes they were right and found relief—sometimes not. SAD can be difficult to accurately diagnose even by a medical provider, and treatments are not a one-size-fits-all, so it’s best to seek help immediately if you’re experiencing some of the aforementioned symptoms. If diagnosed with SAD, you may be treated with psychotherapy, medication (antidepressants), and/or light therapy; however, if you have bipolar disorder, the latter two treatments can potentially trigger a manic episode. That’s why it’s so critical to leave the diagnosing to the experts.
It’s still unclear as to what the specific cause of SAD is, but it is thought that the following factors play a role:
- Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause fall/winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression, especially for those who live far from the equator.
- Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
- Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
And, if you’re female, have a family history of SAD, have been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder and are a younger adult (and live where we do), your risk of SAD greatly increases.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, between 4% and 6% of the U.S. population suffers from SAD while another 10% to 20% may experience a mild form of fall/winter-onset SAD. So, if you’re one of those diagnosed, now is the time to evaluate your behavior and your environment:
- Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight or add skylights to your home. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office (if possible).
- Purchase a light therapy box (after clearing it with your doctor). These lights mimic natural outdoor light and appear to cause a change in brain chemicals associated with mood. Sixty to 80 percent of SAD sufferers are thought to benefit from light therapy.
- Exercise and move regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity can be “wonder drugs” as they help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. You don’t have to start training for a marathon; just be conscious of moving more even if it’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking in one of the far lots at Wegmans. Strategize simply to be less sedentary.
- Get outside. Take a long walk, shovel snow, or eat lunch outdoors when weather permits—do anything that allows you to soak up the sun, even on cold or cloudy days, as outdoor light can help. Spending time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning seems to be most effective.
- Investigate alternative or complementary medicine. These approaches may include using herbal remedies, supplements or mind-body techniques (i.e. acupuncture, yoga, meditation, etc.), though it is unclear how effective these treatments are for SAD specifically. Though herbal and dietary supplements are widely used, and even prescribed in Europe, keep in mind that they aren’t monitored by our Food and Drug Administration. Always speak with your medical provider before adding them to your SAD treatment plan as they may cause dangerous interactions with prescription medications.
- Stick to a Plan: Try to approach the fall/winter season with a positive attitude and plan pleasurable activities for the season with your family and friends. Monitor your mood and energy levels and adjust your plan accordingly.
Remember that it’s normal to have some “down days” in January, especially in CNY. Clearly we cannot control the calendar and fast forward through this month every year, but we can change our perspective with the appropriate medical help and resources. Many years ago I rediscovered cross-country skiing, and I cannot begin to explain how it literally changed my life. Instead of dreading January and the winter months, I now eagerly await the snow and find every excuse I can to be outdoors because I know it keeps me healthy.
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- Mayo Clinic