It is almost a visceral reaction: our bodies sense that the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer, and we react in the way that feels most natural to us. The earth’s turning, the seasons changing, and the holidays’ impending arrival can mean excitement and joy for many of us, and it can also bring increased feelings of depression and anxiety. Therapists and doctors have coined a term for the emotional shifts that occur around the same time every year: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a relatively new term, and was not defined until 1985. Most often the symptoms for SAD begin in the fall, continue through the winter months, and then begin to alleviate in the spring as the earth warms up and daylight hours lengthen. Studies show that SAD has a stronger presence in populations that live further from the equator (when nights may be particularly long), and that it is present in (or reported by?) four times more women than men. It is also thought that SAD is less invasive when there is snow on the ground. This is interesting and makes me think that if there is a “reason” for the darker nights (such as – it is snowing/Christmas time), or if there is something to focus on such as holidays celebrations, then there is not as much of a depressive feeling around this time of year.
It’s a positive thing that we can now put a finger on what is felt by 25% of the US population and that we don’t have to blame it on the “wintertime blues”. We can now get help for the symptoms of SAD, which may be increased feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, fatigue, crying spells, weight gain, or irritability. A common misperception of SAD is that it occurs only in the wintertime months. There is a form of SAD that can happen in the summer time (almost a ‘manic’ to the wintertime’s depression), where you may feel overly energetic, and experience periods of restlessness and racing thoughts. To me, it appears that for many of us the sun’s presence can ignite a new sense of energy in us and its absence can drain the energy right out of us. This also may link to the increase of suicides in dark and rainy climates and the general census of enthusiasm and openness that bursts from us as spring and summertime arrive. We have learned that the sun’s presence and the intensity of its light suppresses our body’s production of Melatonin (sleepy time hormones) and helps our internal clock (circadian rhythm) become in sync.
How can we overcome the effects of SAD? First thing is to know that you are not alone and that it is very possible that the symptoms you are feeling are only temporary. I would suggest investing in bright, florescent lights and keep them on consistently. These can take the place of sunlight when it is not present and can help your brain regulate emotions in a healthy manner. Light treatment is called phototherapy and uses light boxes to synthesize natural light. It is most effective when used consistently during the winter months. Increase your social support and social functions during the dark periods of the year. Make an effort to plan get-togethers with friends and celebrate the many wonderful things about the winter months. Be aware of the general cycles of your emotions and how they react to changes in sunlight and temperature. You don’t have to let SAD make you sad! 🙂