Every fall, we New Englanders must adjust to seasonal changes. As we move into autumn, the sun sets earlier every day, and we turn the clocks back an hour to return to standard time. This loss of light and the oncoming cold can have a negative effect on our mood. Those who love winter sports celebrate, but many of us feel less energetic and begin to dread the upcoming winter. Some of us believe that bears have the right idea and would like to skip winter altogether, entering our dens to hibernate in October and reappearing sometime in April.
During the darker days of winter, 10 to 20% of Americans suffer from mild depression or fatigue. For many, this condition, known as the “winter blues,” is a normal response to less sunlight. But approximately 5% of Americans experience a stronger reaction, a clinical form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In the United States, SAD is much more common in the Northeast. About 10% of people in New Hampshire feel its effects, whereas only 1% of the population in Florida is affected by SAD. By spring and summer, when we see more daylight and the temperatures start to warm, most people recover completely from winter SAD. According to the Mayo Clinic, “SAD is diagnosed more often in women than men, but men typically experience more severe symptoms. Younger people have a higher risk of SAD, and those affected are more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the symptoms of SAD vary but can include:
Sometimes these feelings may lead to acute depression. Individuals with depression may experience:
If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above and are having difficulty functioning at school or work, or if your symptoms interfere with your ability to interact with your family or others, you should talk to your doctor, who can help with a diagnosis and treatment plan.
In general, it is a good idea to exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and find ways to manage your stress. Nutritionists recommend eating more foods with B vitamins, such as fruits, leafy green vegetables, whole-grain bread, fish, and chicken, to fight off depression. See our previous blog post, Does What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health, for more nutrition tips. Even though it may be cold or dark outside, it’s important to stay active socially, so make an effort to meet friends for dinner or attend a class or group activity.
Another option to help you cope with living with less light is light therapy. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a lightbox every morning for about thirty minutes. The box’s light mimics natural outdoor light and is much brighter than ordinary indoor lighting. Studies have shown that light therapy relieves SAD symptoms for about 70% of patients after a few weeks of treatment, with some seeing improvement even sooner. Lightboxes are not regulated, so make sure to do your research and look for a lightbox that provides white light — as opposed to blue or “full-spectrum” — with 10,000 lux of illumination and a broad diffuser screen that filters out UV rays. It’s best to check with your doctor before starting light therapy to get their recommendation.
If light therapy alone doesn’t work and your symptoms turn toward depression, talk to your doctor to see if you might benefit from an antidepressant. It can take a few weeks for you to feel the positive effects and you may have to try a few different medications to find the one that works best for you, but if your symptoms are interfering with your quality of life, this may be an effective solution.
Growing evidence suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or talk therapy, can help patients who have SAD. CBT focuses on developing skills to improve coping with the seasons. A CBT therapist will work with you to foster both behavioral (doing) skills and cognitive (thinking) skills. The behavioral skills involve identifying, scheduling, and doing pleasurable, engaging activities every day in the winter. Over time, these behaviors are meant to counteract the down, lethargic mood and the tendency to give in to the “hibernation” urges that are so common in SAD.