“Every winter, When the great sun has turned his face away, The earth goes down into a vale of grief, And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables…” -Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), Saint’s Tragedy (act III, sc. 1)
It’s mid January, the holiday buzz is over and the cold gray days of winter have crept into our collective psyches. While many of us trudge through frozen sidewalks and waning daylight with a quiet acquiescence of winter’s vices, others find this season brings unrelenting sadness, with cravings for excess sleep and carbohydrates. These feelings along with hopelessness, lethargy and social isolation are symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, (aka S.A.D.) a form of depression that begins in late fall and lasts throughout the winter months.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is largely a product of reduced sunlight. The winter solstice on December 21 brings the shortest day of the year, yielding the least amount of sunlight. It has been shown that inadequate exposure to sunlight affects our biological clock, thus shifting our sleep patterns. Lack of daylight also impacts seratonin and melatonin, two chemicals that effect mood. While freezing temperatures fuel our natural instincts to hibernate, there is a real concern for people that not only isolate and indulge in extra sleep, but also suffer from ongoing feelings of despair. Effective treatments for SAD, like other treatments for clinical depression, include talk therapy, and anti-depressant medications. Additionally, those afflicted with SAD, may consider Phototherapy or Light Box Therapy, a special lamp with a very bright light (10,000 lux) that mimics natural sunlight. It is normally used upon awakening to imitate sunrise. Possible side effects include eyestrain, irritability, fatigue and less commonly, episodes of mania. Your health care professional can guide you on particular light box options along with the benefits and risks involved in any treatment choice.
Cocooning in blankets, bingeing on carbohydrates, and ongoing feelings of hopelessness need not be your winter tradition. Speak to your health care professional about your low mood and energy levels in winter, and the possibility of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Talk therapy can help you reframe negative feelings and adjust certain behaviors that contribute to sadness, while medication and light therapy can help alter biochemistry that impacts mood and sleep. There is no specific test for SAD, but your provider can rule out other metabolic issues and review your symptoms for a diagnosis. Treatment options are readily available and can be highly effective.