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How to Beat Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

When all that’s left of the fa-la-la-la-las is rock-hard fruitcake, the winter blahs creep up, settle in, and hang around until spring.  Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, the Savvy Psychologist, has 8 tips on how to deal with the blues and their more serious cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
March 7, 2014
Episode #009

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We’re in the home stretch of what some have called the worst winter in U.S. history.  Trudging to dig out your car yet again, your temper may match the days: short, dark, and icy. This is the exact complaint that one Savvy Pscyhologist listener of Providence, RI emailed me about. Dan H. - we hear you!

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Winter blahs are pretty common.  Some folks hate the holidays.  Others feel let down once the Christmas tree is out by the curb.  Still others get ground down by month after month of gray skies and grayer slush.  Even Wall Street isn’t immune: indeed, the price of IPOs has been found to vary with the season.

As we’ve mentioned on the Savvy Psychologist show before, most disorders are the extreme end of normal experiences.  Winter blues is a problem, but a relatively minor one—you feel blah, you eat more Girl Scout cookies in the recliner than usual, but you manage to function. 

By contrast, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is more serious.  More often than not, a SAD sufferer feels like a hibernating bear who’s been disturbed: grouchy, lethargic, and exhausted.  You also may feel sad, guilty, hopeless, pessimistic, unmotivated, and self-critical.  Symptoms that are different from a non-seasonal depression include craving for carbs, resulting in weight gain, and sleeping too much. Also, unlike typical depression, which is equal-opportunity when it comes to the season, SAD lifts like a hemline once warmer weather hits.  

SAD affects about 1-5% of Americans in the lower 48, with numbers increasing as we move to northern latitudes, shorter days, and longer winters.  In Alaska, numbers can top 10%.  Women in their childbearing years are most affected, with a 4:1 ratio of women to men.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

No one is exactly sure, but the shorter daylight hours of winter seem to be the main cause of SAD.  Light is the pacemaker to our pacemaker—it cues our circadian rhythms, or internal body clock.  Shortened daylight hours can trigger a cascade of problems: our out-of-whack circadian rhythms throw off associated neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin and melatonin, which in turn throws off our appetite, sleep, and mood.  Additional factors like climate, genetics, and even the sensitivity of your retinas combine to create the perfect (winter) storm for SAD.

Those carb cravings, by the way, are your body’s attempt to boost serotonin.  Serotonin release can be influenced by high-carbohydrate food, as anyone who has ever reached for a donut to soothe a bad mood can attest.  Indeed, it’s not just a phenomenon unique to SAD—ask anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking, had PMS, or battled emotional eating.

So what can you do to beat winter blues and SAD? Well, instead of curling up in a fetal position with a stack of cinnamon rolls until spring, try my 5 tips for beating mild winter blues. And if your struggle is with full-blown SAD, I have 3 tips on how to combat that too.

5 Tips to Beat the Winter Blues

Tip #1: See the light. 

Serotonin production in the brain is related to light; the neurotransmitter gets pumped out more quickly as the days get longer and brighter.  Likewise, production of melatonin—the sleep hormone—is also regulated by light. 

To treat winter blues with light, getting some winter sun may be enough.  Standing indoors by a closed window or seeing light through a windshield while commuting isn’t sufficient, but a walk around the neighborhood with your dog or a trek to a deliberately distant coffee shop during bright, midday work hours might be a satisfactory, if cold, way to soak in some sunlight.

Tip #2: Exercise.

A long line of studies touts the benefits of exercise on mood.  How exercise might work in the context of SAD isn’t exactly clear.  Some studies say exercise somehow increases one’s sensitivity to light and can help restore circadian rhythms.  Others say it jump-starts the circadian pacemaker—a cluster of neurons in the pineal gland.  Regardless, a good workout may help you achieve a good mood, despite an impending Snowpocalypse.

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