The winter months can be gray and dreary and seem very long, especially in Columbus, Ohio! There are fewer activities and opportunities to be outdoors in the sunshine, which can physiologically and psychologically take its toll. While some people may feel a bit down on dreary winter days, a person experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has difficulty in daily functioning due to the intrusiveness of the symptoms.

What is SAD? Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a depressive episode that is only felt during a specific time of year. It may include depression symptoms such as: decreased interest, fatigue, changes in sleep and appetite, feelings of sadness or tearfulness, or thoughts of death. Most often, those struggling with SAD have an increased appetite, increased desire for sleep, decreased energy level and a loss of interest in activities and social interaction. There is no confirmed cause of SAD; however, there are several commonly accepted factors. Increased hours of darkness limit the amount of sunlight exposure and affect one’s internal clock, which regulates when to be asleep and when to be awake. Our hormone levels (which influence our mood) also change: serotonin levels may fall with the decreased sunlight and melatonin may rise as the hormone is created when it is dark.

Who gets SAD? It is generally accepted that approximately 4% to 9% of the US population is thought to have SAD. However, 10% to 20% of the population may experience some symptoms in a less severe form. The disorder is more prevalent among women than men and usually is not noticed before the age of 20.  Links have been found between people suffering with SAD and history of depression and/or alcoholism in their families. In general, the depression symptoms usually begin in October or November and most people will begin to feel “normal” again in early May.

How do I know if I have SAD? Recognizing the symptoms, and having a diagnosis of SAD confirmed, can lead to a better understanding of your feelings and to action strategies that will help you make winter an enjoyable time again. The most common treatments for SAD are light boxes, psychotherapy (especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and medication. If you believe the symptoms of SAD are impacting your ability to function it is best to speak to a licensed counselor or physician to determine the most appropriate treatment for your symptoms.

What can I do if I just have the “winter blahs”? It is important to continue engaging in the things that make us happy in the warm months! It is easy to get outdoors and be social and energetic when it is gorgeous outside but it feels like sometimes all we can handle in the winter is trudging to the couch in sweatpants with a big bowl of pasta. People tend to want to hibernate during the winter and there are not as many activities, festivals, and parties in the winter to force us to get out and moving. So, it is up to us to create times that are fun and energizing. Make plans to socialize with others, get outdoors in the sunlight (even if it is just a short walk on your lunch break!), and plan day trips or a vacation. To warm up a dreary winter day try using techniques that often work to cure bad moods such as: exercising, volunteering, tackling a to-do list, turning on up-beat music or calling a friend. Finding a psychologist or counselor that uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has also been found to help; the theory basically states that one’s thoughts influence feelings and inspires behavior. Learning to recognize, understand and modify distorted thoughts helps to create more positive feelings and healthy behaviors. Don’t treat the winter as an excuse to stop taking care of yourself, be proactive in making plans and celebrate the unique things winter offers, such as: skiing, snowmen, crackling fires and hot chocolate!  Make positive goals for the winter season and New Year. Taking steps towards these goals is empowering and helps place emphasis on the future instead of the past. Being prepared for the darker evenings with plans and activities can also help fight the urges and excuses to do nothing, which will keep you healthy and vibrant throughout the entire year!