Winter can be an awe-inspiring time of year. Snow-covered landscapes and opportunities to enjoy sports like skiing and snowboarding make winter a favorite time of year for nature enthusiasts and athletes.
As fun as winter can be, many people struggle with the transition from warm weather and long, sunny days to cold weather and reduced hours of sunlight. Sometimes mistaken or misidentified as the "winter blues," this phenomenon is known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, SAD is a type of depression. The NIH notes that a person must meet full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons for at least two years to be diagnosed with SAD. The American Psychiatric Association says symptoms of SAD can be distressing and overwhelming and even interfere with daily functioning.
The APA notes that SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain that's prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As the seasons change, a shift in a person's biological internal clock or circadian rhythm can lead to them being out of step with their normal routines. That can contribute to various symptoms, including:
• Feeling sad or depressed
• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
• Changes in appetite, usually eating more and craving carbohydrates
• Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
• Increase in purposeless physical activity or slowed movements or speech that may be noticed by others
• Feeling worthless or guilty
• Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
• Thoughts of death or suicide
The weather can't be changed, but people can speak with their physicians about the following strategies to overcome SAD.
• Light therapy: According to the APA, light therapy involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that emits a very bright light. In the winter, patients typically sit in front of the box for 20 minutes each morning, and they may see some improvements within one to two weeks of beginning treatment. Light therapy is usually continued throughout the winter.
• Medication: The APA notes that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a type of antidepressant that are sometimes prescribed to treat SAD.
• Spending time outdoors: People with SAD who don't typically spend much time outdoors when the temperatures dip may notice their symptoms improve if they make a concerted effort to spend time outdoors in winter.
• Rearrange rooms in the home: The APA notes that rearranging rooms and furniture in a home or office to allow more natural light in during the daytime can help improve symptoms of SAD.
SAD is a legitimate concern for millions of people across the globe. Working with a physician to overcome SAD can help people successfully transition to days with fewer hours of sunlight.