As the days get shorter and the nights longer, some of us may feel more sluggish, anxious, and moody. When winter really kicks up into high gear, over 14 million Americans feel the full brunt of seasonal affective disorder every year, with 33 million more not as harshly affected.
Seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD, cabin fever, and the winter blues) is a condition in which people suffer periods of depression that correlate with changes in the season. Most people slide into seasonal depression during the fall and winter, and experience normal levels of happiness during the spring and summer. Between 4 and 6 percent of Americans suffer from SAD, and nearly three quarters of these people are women between the ages of 20 and 40.
In the 1970s, psychologist Norman Rosenthal moved from warm Johannesburg, South Africa to New York City. After the big move, Rosenthal noticed that he felt more anxious, tired, and overworked during the New York City winter, but as soon as spring started to warm up the cold city, he perked up. Realizing that the shift in his moods likely sprung from the higher latitude in New York, with shorter days and longer nights during the winter months, Rosenthal began to investigate this phenomenon. By 1984, Rosenthal had released the results of his study that would describe seasonal affective disorder for the very first time.
The classic symptoms of the winter blues include excessive sleeping, weight gain, fatigue, lethargy, and social isolation. Rosenthal himself compares SAD to jet lag—sufferers just don’t adjust to the winter sunlight patterns fast enough. Many people with SAD tend to eat more carbohydrates. Those with seasonal affective disorder also tend to have a family history of depression, mental illness, or substance abuse. Plus, there’s also a condition known as “reverse SAD,” where people feel depressed and low in the summer instead of in the winter. Sufferers of summer SAD generally lose appetite, struggle through insomnia, and agitation—often losing weight instead of gaining weight.
Despite the discomfort that many with the seasonal blues feel, seasonal affective disorder is generally considered very treatable. Some doctors recommend that people with SAD boost protein levels in their diets and incorporate more physical activity into their daily routines. Most people with winter SAD use light therapy to treat symptoms. Light therapy involves using bright florescent light bulbs to simulate warmth and sunlight. The types of bulbs, intensity, duration, and other strategy vary from person to person. Still, light therapy is 85 percent effective at treating SAD during the cold winter months. Some treatments can combine light therapy with antidepressants, depending on the severity of symptoms.
Treatment for reverse SAD is a little different. These individuals must cool down instead, and many opt to take vacations to cooler places. Others resort to more resourceful methods, like swimming the English Channel and blasting the air conditioning in their homes. Still, the most effective method of treated reverse seasonal affective disorder is through the use of antidepressants and mood stabilizers.
If you’re feeling anxious, tired, and depressed this winter, consider getting yourself checked out for seasonal affective disorder. Treatment is relatively easy and effective, and will most likely help you defeat the winter blues.