Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder: What you should know

With snow sticking to my boots, I boarded the bus. It was 8 a.m. and the northern England sky was still dark, its freezing air seeping into a crowd of aching, tired people headed to another day of work. It wasn’t unusual for the sun to come up there after 9 a.m. and then dart back beneath the horizon at about 3 or 4 p.m.

Although it seems like a long time ago, that experience in dark northern England comes to mind now as the days are getting shorter.

Studies from the Oxford Journal of Age and Aging as well as the Dutch publication, Obesity Research Journal, tell us that winter changes not only our moods but also our body’s physical processes. It is completely normal to feel a little more sluggish during the winter months. R.W. Stout et al in the Oxford journal tells us that as winter comes our joints are going to feel a little stiffer, our blood pressure changes, cholesterol levels go up and our risk for heart disease increases (especially as we age).

It makes sense that all these new pressures on our bodies have an effect on our mood too.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has become the common term for the wintertime blues. If you felt that this mood change was severe enough to go see a doctor, they would use all of the following four criteria from the DSM-IV to diagnose SAD:

  • Depressive episodes at a particular time of the year
  • Remissions or mania/hypomania at a characteristic time of year
  • These patterns must have lasted two years with no nonseasonal major depressive episodes during that same period
  • and these seasonal depressive episodes outnumber other depressive episodes throughout the patient’s lifetime.

Pretty steep criteria, aren’t they? But they bring some great news. The dirty little secret of SAD is that seasonal changes in mood are completely natural and, according to the Oxford studies, occur in everyone to varying degrees both young and old.

These studies also tell us a few great ways to boost our energy levels during the darker days of winter. First, get as much sun as you can. With only 10 hours of daylight at most, eight of which are spent working, it can be a challenge to get outside and catch a few rays. Try lunchtime walks with co-workers, giving you the perfect way to get some of the 10 minutes of direct noonday daylight that doctors recommend. Keep the blinds open in your house as much as you can, letting in what light is available. And although it might not help the energy bills, turning on plenty of light in the house is also helpful for combatting the winter blues. Ultraviolet light therapy is the prescription of choice for most diagnosed SAD cases.

Despite the light, exercise is the best way to improve the free-flow of all the great biochemicals that keep us happy. The landmark study in Archives of Internal Medicine (1999) that first reshaped how we think about the connection between exercise and depression found that a group program of aerobic exercise — three supervised 45-minute sessions per week of moderate to high intensity cardio for four months — was just as effective at treating depression as was the popular anti-depressant Zoloft, or even a combination of exercise and Zoloft. Even six months later, participants who recovered were less likely to relapse into depression if they had been in the exercise group. To learn more about how to exercise safely on cold winter days, check out Injury Free’s article about how to Stay Active and Safe in Winter.

That said, those who think they do suffer from serious depression should always pay attention to those feelings and seek help right away.
If changes in exercise, sunlight exposure and diet don’t help, please seek professional attention, especially for thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

A little light and exercise might help you be a little happier on that cold morning commute to work.