2018 has started out, here in the northeast, to be a frigidly cold and challenging winter. What is it about the grayness of winter which makes us want to hibernate, find the comfort of hot chocolate and a soft couch from which we can push back against the Winter Blues?
Every season has its impact on our physical and emotional state. Winter, a time of conservation and storage, is also a time when people feel less energetic, sleepier and maybe even gloomy. SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is estimated to affect 10 million Americans and is four times more common in women than in men. It is essentially about depression which appears or is exacerbated in winter. SAD refers to the low mood and energy which occurs annually beginning in the Fall and continues through the winter months.
This low energy can creep up quietly and slowly and be noticed as a depressed, touchy or irritable mood. Maybe a partner who is generally positive becomes unmotivated and argumentative. Perhaps you find yourselves spending long weekends alone at home…..more than usual and more than what feels good. Behavior changes such as isolating, excessive sleeping and overeating could also be signs of SAD.
It’s part of life to have days when you feel down or days when you want to curl up with a book and shut out the world. But if you feel down for days at a time or if these changes affect your ability to feel motivated, to enjoy relationships or function at work or at home, this may mean that there is more going on than just the Winter Blues. It may signal a deeper depression which should be evaluated by a professional. There’s plenty that can be done to help and so reaching out is a first step.
Although there is limited research regarding SAD, there are several theories as to why the darker months contribute to Winter Blues. One theory is that the body produces more of a hormone called melatonin during the longer dark hours of winter. The increased melatonin production in turn causes people to feel sleepier and more lethargic. For example, getting out of bed in the early hours, whether to go to school or work, may become extremely difficult for those with SAD. For some, this impairs the ability to manage their daily routine. This would be an opportunity to seek a professional assessment. For many, it simply makes life routines more difficult. Ask any parent of a teenager!
Another theory explains that because dawn comes later in the winter, people wake up with higher levels of melatonin and this in turn can cause lower thyroid, cortisol and serotonin levels in the brain. These lowered levels may then cause changes in mood, energy and appetite. Lastly, with shorter days and longer nights, some theories posit that people have less exposure to the bright light which seems to have an anti-depressant effect, increase alertness and assist in synchronizing the circadian clock.