Experts explain the myths and realities of seasonal affective disorder and what to do about it

Recently a friend said to me angrily, “This season is my curse.” “I’m just holding off until spring.” I guess the good news is that at least the days are getting longer again. But for those of us who don’t live in particularly warm, bright parts of the world, winter can be a real mood killer. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that about 5 percent of American adults suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition marked by “mood swings and symptoms similar to depression” and usually (but not exclusively) It is associated with the winter months.

The notion that a particular time of year may increase mental health problems seems reasonable. I mean, look out. colorless, Correct? But the concept of seasonal depression is relatively modern. The term is attributed to author and psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health, who identified the condition in 1984. It entered the DSM only a few years later. It is still one of the more mysterious mental health conditions.

“Little is known about the exact origins of SAD.”

“Very little is known about the exact origins of SAD,” says Sarah Rollins, a licensed clinical social worker and practitioner at Embodied Wellness in Michigan. “Researchers have pointed to some possible causes, including your biological clock, vitamin D deficiency, and melatonin.”

Like any mental health disorder, SAD diagnosis requires a professional, but Rollins says that “common symptoms of winter depression include sleeping more, changes in appetite such as cravings for high-carbohydrate foods, weight gain, “Includes low energy or fatigue and negative thoughts.”

Like other real and misunderstood disorders like OCD and ADHD, SAD can sometimes be a casual shorthand for a self-diagnosed range of emotions and reactions. It’s certainly not a clear cause and effect that cold weather equates to sadness. A 29-year survey of suicide rates in the US found the highest suicide rates in April, May and June. Not exactly months that are known for being cold. And as Johns Hopkins Medicine reported in 2019, “These numbers may be two to three times higher than in December, when suicide rates are lowest.” Similarly, a review of psychiatric referrals in the UK 2018 found that “there were fewer referrals to psychiatric contact services in the winter months than in other seasons.”

Conversely, while a recent WalletHub study listed Hawaii among the happiest U.S. states, it also definitely topped non-tropical Utah, Maryland, Minnesota, and New Jersey. And when the World Happiness Report annually lists its happiest countries, the top spot inevitably goes to the countries with the longest, darkest winters on Earth – Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Perhaps cold isn’t always the problem here.

“When we think about Norway and Iceland, they also have some socialized medicine, they have social determinants of health that make life a little more ‘difficult’ in our country,” says family physician Dr. Latasha Perkins. Are. “If you know you can go to the doctor any time you need to, if you know your basic needs are going to be met, that gives you a little bit more of a basic sense of well-being.”

If you’re in a culture that prioritizes stability and strong social ties, the dark days may not be so severe.

Perkins says we need to “think about the socialization and sociology of the places you’re talking about.” Looking at America and more apparently happy areas of the world, it seems clear that if you’re in a culture that prioritizes stability and strong social ties, the dark days may not be so severe. They may not even be that dark.

“You don’t have to go to a Hawaii beach to get the benefits of sunlight,” says Perkins. “Sunlight helps with vitamin D. Additionally, there are serotonin receptors in your brain that are affected by the time you spend in the sun.” “Even though it’s winter, there’s the sun and the snow is reflecting that sunlight,” she says. “Getting up and opening those shades and getting winter sunshine into your home is definitely worth it. 20 minutes of indirect sunlight is great for your mood.”

While seasonal affective disorder is a complex diagnosis, it still affects millions of us. Millions of people experience periods where cold and lack of daylight negatively affect our mood and our ability to do the things that bring us joy. But there are also positive actions to help get through the tough weeks. Emily Pagon, founder and clinical director of Authentic Growth Wellness Group in Illinois, says that because this time of year is often “a little more sedentary” for many of us, she recommends “to grow Go ahead and lean into the cold.” Dopamine levels increase in them. Being in nature, working on mindfulness and other mental wellness strategies is very important. To keep it going, dare to go out, even if it’s cold.’

Pagon says winter is a good time of year to check in with your doctor and mental health provider to see if there are any changes that might make a difference. “See what their recommendations would be in terms of labs, supplements to integrate, making sure that greenery is going in, a whole bunch of things that may change because of the winter.”

And on those days when the weather is keeping you confined to the house, Dr. Latasha Perkins says, “During the winter, I often tell my patients to dance. Turn on some music and move your body. Sweat. “Play, even if it’s old school jams. It really gets your body moving, because music releases endorphins in your body if it’s associated with a happy memory.” Perkins also advises, “Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while. You can spend hours flipping through TikTok, or in an hour you can call someone you haven’t talked to in a long time.” Time hasn’t called. One way to connect with people is through quote unquote dark times.”

Meanwhile, Sara Rollins suggests giving a happy Deepak a whirl. “These lamps are specifically designed to mimic natural light,” she says. “They are relatively inexpensive and available at major retail stores. Sitting in front of a lamp for 30 minutes a day is recommended. It’s easier to brush your teeth, get ready for work, or even watch TV in front of a happy lamp.”


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When the trees are bare and the sky is overcast and dark and seeing your loved ones means, uh, wearing a coat, it can be very tempting to stay indoors until spring. But if you’re feeling depressed this season, it’s worth examining what’s going on. Are you less active? Are you alone? These are things that can be helped. And whether it’s alleviating seasonal depression or having a more enjoyable time until the next equinox, Pagon says it’s worth it to wear that coat anyway.

“If someone is feeling this, it’s valid, especially when the clocks change and it gets dark around 4:15 p.m. But, she adds, “if we focus it on something that The thing to keep in mind with all this would be behavioral activation, getting your body moving before your mind gets in the way and stops you from doing the thing you’ve been thinking about for a while, which is going for a walk in the cold. Might have to go. Use whatever energy you are capable of, no matter what type of body you have, or what your body is or is not capable of doing. Move toward something you want to work on,” she says, “and see what happens.”

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