If you feel just a little bit gloomier during the winter, there may be a reason for why. (Photo: Getty Images)
Winter is here, which means short days, long nights, and not a lot of light. For some people, these extended periods of darkness can leave them feeling lethargic, unmotivated and downright miserable. In other words, winter makes them “sad.”
Indeed, for people with the diagnosable medical condition of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), winter months lead to a depression that occurs due to changes in the natural day/night cycle. People who have it are treated by exposing themselves to light from a light box, and in some cases, also with antidepressants and psychotherapy.
But is it possible to have just a mild version of SAD — one that does not necessitate extreme medical intervention?
“Yes, definitively speaking, SAD is a spectrum disorder,” Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, psychiatrist and author of “Winter Blues,” tells Yahoo Health. “Depending on where you are on the spectrum, you could [have] what we call a mild form of SAD, which is the winter blues.”
Rosenthal — who is best known for his research in naming SAD — further states your degree of SAD could waver throughout the season, depending on your location. “For example, you could have a little bit of SAD while living in North Carolina, then a move to New York City can give you full-blown SAD, especially if your sunlight was obstructed by the tall buildings,” he explains. “However, it’s not like you can nail it and say, ‘This person definitely has SAD yet this person has the winter blues.’ So once you understand that it’s a dynamic process — the interaction between a vulnerable person and the amount of environmental light — then you’ll be ahead of the game.”
At times, there may be difficultly in differentiating between SAD and general depression since Rosenthal says those who are depressed year-round could get worse in the winter. Plus, the symptoms — fatigue, lack of interest in everyday activities, difficulty concentrating, socially withdrawn — overlap. “It comes down to taking a good, hard look at your history and putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” he says.
As for how to treat a mild case of SAD, Rosenthal says it’s all about stepping out of the darkness and into the light. Some potential options:
- Head outside for a short stroll on a sunny morning. “Yes, it’s very cold in the northern parts of the country, so you probably do not feel inclined to do that,” he says. “But taking a short walk could be the best thing for you.”
- Bring more light into your home and office. In some cases, extra wattage of regular bulbs may do the trick. You may also want to put a lamp in your bedroom on a timer and set it to turn on a few minutes before you wake up, so you can rise and shine in a brightly lit room. If that seems too harsh, Rosenthal says there is a more sophisticated device called a dawn simulator, where the scheduled light comes on gradually.
- Purchase a light box. Also known as bright light therapy, it mimics outdoor light. He recommends fluorescent light, about one-square-foot in size, that’s covered by a screen (in order to block the ultraviolet light, which is harmful to skin and eyes). “And I would recommend white light, not blue light, which has become all the rage,” he adds.
Rosenthal emphasizes that these suggestions are only for those who are feeling somewhat down in the dumps. How can you tell when your SAD is bad enough that you need to see a doctor? Rosenthal says it’s a question of judgment: “You’re not going to the doctor for a cold, but you’ll go for pneumonia — but what if you have something between a cold and pneumonia?” he says. “At a certain point, you’d say, ‘This is enough self-care. I’m going to a doctor.’ I think it’s the same with SAD.” He says if you’re trying different things on your own and finding that you’re feeling better, then you can probably nurse yourself through the winter. “But if you’re finding that important things are beginning to suffer,” he says, “that would be the time to get help.”
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