The Winter Blues

winter bluesThe season of snow flurries is upon us, and with it can come the dreaded winter blues.[1] It seems to be dark at all times, the green trees are now barren, and freezing temperatures keep us holed up inside, leading us to feel moody and tired.1

However, how do you know if this is just a funk you can shake off or a version of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder?They seem so similar at times.1 Both bring about feelings of boredom, fatigue, and low mood.1 Some choose to spend more time alone and become less active.1 Therefore, when is it hibernation mode and when is it something to see a clinician about?

The winter blues are often a very mild case of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).1 SAD is a mood disorder that affects an individual the same time each year, usually beginning when the weather turns colder in October and ending in April when the weather warms up again.1 Less often do the warmer months bring upon a period of sadness.1

Oftentimes, symptoms start out as mild and become more severe as the season progresses.1 When you begin to feel hopeless, anxious, and overtired, leading you to sleep more than normal, it may be the beginning of depression.1 Once you find yourself withdrawing socially, lack an interest in activities you usually enjoy, and experience a change in appetite, you may want to see your clinician.1 It is normal to have some days when you feel down in the dumps, but when you feel that way more days than not, it’s time to get yourself some help.1 With depression, especially during the winter, it is easy to turn to alcohol, or other drugs, for comfort and relaxation.1 Therefore, when you are in need of assistance, don’t be afraid to reach out.1

So, why do some experience the winter blues and depression during the cold months? The reduced level of sunlight can disrupt a person’s biological clock, which lets you know when you need to sleep and when you need to be awake.1 The reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin levels, which affects your mood and produces feelings of happiness.1

If you are a female, you are at a higher risk of seasonal affective disorder.1 In fact, between 60 percent and 90 percent of people with SAD are women between the ages of 15 and 55.1 Also, if you live far from the equator, SAD is often more common.1 Further from the equator, the amount of sunlight during the winter is much less.1 Have you heard about the 24 hours of darkness in Fairbanks, Alaska? Also, if you have a family history of depression or bipolar disorder, it is not uncommon for depression to develop, and if it already has, it can be worse during the winter.1

A complication of depression is suicide.1 People who feel depressed can begin having suicidal thoughts or exhibiting suicidal behavior.1 This requires immediate help and treatment.

When visiting with a clinician, they will ask detailed questions about your mood and seasonal changes, as well as perform a physical exam to ensure there are no underlying problems causing this issue.1 Considered a subtype of depression, you must have experienced depression for at least two consecutive years, during the same season each year.1 These periods of depression must be followed by periods without depression.1 Also, there must not be any other explanations for changes in your mood or behavior.1

There are three main treatments for SAD: light therapy, medicine, and psychotherapy.1 With light therapy, you will be asked to sit a few feet from a specialized light box in order to expose you to bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.1 It causes a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.1 If symptoms are severe, antidepressant medicines are usually prescribed.1 Also, psychotherapy is usually a staple in SAD treatment, as it helps you to identify and change your negative thoughts and behaviors that make you feel worse.1

You can also do some things on your own to increase your mood.1 Open up your blinds, sit closer to windows, take a walk outside during the morning, and exercise regularly.1 These are all natural remedies to increase mood.

Watch out for those winter blues!

[1] Blaszczak, J. (2005). 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-things-you-dont-know-about-seasonal-affective-disorder/0002

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