Overcoming The Winter Blues

Overcoming The Winter Blues

Are the winter blues getting you down? It just might be Seasonal Affective Disorder.

SAD is most common among people living far north or south of the equator, mainly due to the decreased sunlight during the fall and winter months and the accompanying longer periods of darkness. These seasonal changes cause our internal biological clock, or circadian rhythm, to be thrown out of step with our daily schedules. Nearly three out of four people with SAD are women, and the average age of onset is between 18 and 30. A diagnosis of SAD can be made after 2 consecutive winters with a majority of the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood all or most of the day
  • Hopelessness
  • Increased appetite (especially for carbs) and weight gain
  • Increased sleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability/lower tolerance for stress
  • Decreased libido
  • Suicidal thoughts (in severe cases)

These symptoms usually begin to appear in October or November and subside in March or April, as the length of daylight noticeably increases. SAD tends to run in families, as do other mood disorders.

Treatment for SAD can include antidepressant medication, counseling and light therapy (phototherapy).

Antidepressants can be very helpful in offering relief, especially when symptoms are severe. For maximum benefit, this needs to start the month before the sunlight begins to decrease.

Light therapy can also be quite useful in mood and energy improvement. Light boxes are widely available online, range in price from $40 to $300, and can be purchased without a prescription. These boxes are to be used every morning immediately upon waking. One sits in front of the bright light for 30 minutes and the box emits a bright full spectrum light that is brighter than what one could get from regular lamps in the home. The purpose of the light is to stimulate the retinas in the eyes. This is said to be helpful in resetting the circadian clock that gets out of sync with the darkened mornings and shortened daylight.

Counseling can also be helpful for learning ways to cope with SAD, learning tools for stress management, and helping to change negative thoughts and behaviors that can contribute to the depressed mood. Additional interventions may also help with SAD, including making the home and work environment as sunny and bright -as possible. Position your desk or chairs to face windows for maximum exposure to naturally available light and get outside in the morning as often as possible, even on cold or cloudy days. Exercise regularly, as physical activity can decrease anxiety, increase energy and boost mood. Some people find melatonin to be helpful when taken in low doses in afternoon or early evening. Plus, many folks who suffer from SAD try to plan sunny getaways strategically during the winter months.

No one needs suffer in silence each winter and treatment is available. The counseling staff at Norris Health Center is here to help your students. Please do not hesitate to have them contact us at 414-229-4716.

By Laura L. Pagel, MA, LPC Senior Counselor, Norris Health Center