Winter blues got you down? Research suggests that the holiday season is not associated with higher rates of depression, but you’re not alone if you feel unusually down during the winter season.
The cause? Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD. SAD, a subset of major depression, is actually caused by the short, dark, cold days of winter, not the holidays themselves. Its symptoms, largely shared with major depression, include hopelessness, low energy, lack of interest, changes in appetite or weight and frequent thoughts of death or suicide. SAD, however, is defined by its symptoms’ seasonality: “winter blues” that come and go with the coming of spring.
The most commonly accepted cause for SAD is the decreased amount of sunlight during the winter months, which may disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm. This explanation is strongly supported by the rates of seasonal affective disorder across the world. Rates are highest in arctic regions without many hours of sun; compare Oslo, Norway’s rate of 14 percent to New York’s rate of 5 percent.
SAD is also thought to be related to evolutionary advantages of distant ancestors; lower energy levels in the winter meant less food needed to be consumed in times of scarcity. Furthermore, since symptoms of depression also lead to a decreased libido and social withdrawal, women experiencing these symptoms were less likely to become pregnant and give birth at the dangerous time of fall and winter, when their offspring’s survival might be compromised. These symptoms would therefore lead to an increased chance of pregnancy during other times of the year, especially in the summer, which would lead to offspring being born at a safer time of year.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder involves a cocktail of solutions. Sometimes typical antidepressants (SSRIs) and medication are used. However, there are also many forms of treatment specifically designed for seasonal affective disorder.
One form of treatment is light therapy. This treatment involves simply sitting close to fluorescent light box, going about business as usual. These lights mimic the spectrum of light given off by the sun, making up for the increased hours of darkness during the winter months.
Another treatment involves gradually turning on bright lights in the morning, simulating a natural dawn. Many people’s circadian rhythms are strongly influenced by the dim lights of the early morning — more so than during any other time of day — so dawn simulation controls for the disruption that the increased darkness during the winter causes. With treatment, the prognosis for seasonal affective disorder is good.
So the next time you’re feeling those winter blues, know that there’s a reason for it — and that they’re not here to stay.