As the weather becomes colder and days shorter many of us in the Greater Boston and Cambridge area experience shifts in mood often referred to as the winter blues. The winter blues is quite common and characterized by decreased energy, mild sadness, and a desire to withdraw from social activities during the colder months. However for some these seasonal mood shifts may actually be signs of a mental illness known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a subtype of Major Depressive Disorder that’s characterized by peaks each year based on seasonal patterns. SAD affects about 5% of the U.S. population, but more so in northern states. These symptoms are considerably more intense, pervasive and debilitating than the winter blues.
SAD vs Winter Blues: Important Facts
SAD symptoms vary from mild to severe; however they are persistent and have a significant negative impact on quality of life compared to the winter blues. Symptoms include persistent sadness, lethargy, mood dysregulation (e.g., irritability/easily angered, anxious/overwhelmed, emotional numbness or inability to experience pleasure). There are also significant changes in appetite (eating too much or too little), sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, and a loss of interest in enjoyable activity. Physiological symptoms may include digestive issues, achy/ weak muscles, chronic tension, headaches, fatigue, itchy skin/rashes, etc.
The majority of people living with SAD feel depressed during the fall and winter and improve with the brightness of spring and summer. However some individuals struggle with Summer or Spring/Fall onset of SAD.
It is not yet known what exactly causes SAD. It is hypothesized that the reduced sunlight, shorter days, reduced physical activity, and stress/psychological impact of changing seasons can cause disruptions in our body’s natural circadian rhythms – our internal clock that rhythmically regulates all body systems within a 24 hour cycle. This leads to disruptions in the sleep-wake cycle, mood-regulating neurotransmitters, hormones, appetite, and energy levels.
When To Seek Help: Many people experience mild seasonal symptoms (winter blues) but don’t have SAD or depression. If you have questions about whether your symptoms reach the level of SAD, consult with your primary care doctor. They can help clarify your diagnosis, assess related medical issues, and provide referrals to mental health professionals if needed. lf your symptoms become increasingly severe, leading to reduced quality of life or thoughts of harming yourself or others, then please urgently seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
Tips for Beating the Winter Blues and Managing SAD:
The following simple and effective mind-body techniques can be highly effective in alleviating the winter blues and helping to manage SAD.
Please note: Treatment for SAD requires an integrative approach with support from a variety of health professionals. Primary care doctors monitor health, nutrition, and sleep, psychiatrists prescribe and oversee appropriate medications, and licensed psychologists or master's level therapists provide evidence-based counseling. Light therapy is also a research-proven treatment specifically for SAD. Many people experience the most benefit from a combination of treatment approaches.
**Embrace Natural Light:** Make an effort to spend time outdoors during daylight hours, even when it's chilly. Natural light exposure can help regulate your body's internal clock and boost mood. It is also the best source of vitamin D, a nutrient essential for optimal nervous system, muscular and immune functioning.
**Light Therapy:** Light therapy (phototherapy) using a special lightbox is an evidence based psychological treatment assessed specifically for SAD. This therapy mimics natural sunlight and can be highly effective in treating SAD.
**Acceptance and Self Compassion:** Persistent thoughts and feelings of guilt and self-doubt are common; however, they are not accurate nor are they fair. Radical (self) acceptance and self compassion help work toward embracing all experiences, thoughts, and emotions, without self-judgment or resistance. Be kind and gentle with yourself and remind yourself this is temporary and you are worthy of love and support, just like anyone else.
**Plan Ahead:** A little planning before the cold months can go a long way in helping ease your burden and manage stress.
Look at your daily schedule and plan structured ways to integrate pacing, flexibility, self-care, fun/joy, and breaks. Also consider dedicated breaks such as vacations and mental health days.
Let friends and loved ones know how you are feeling and what to expect. Ask for their support and assistance, and then allow them to help and support you.
Check-in with your psychiatrist to make a solid plan for medication and/or light therapy.
Having a diagnosed and documented mental or physical illness entitles you by law to accommodations in schools and workplaces. Plans should focus on the pacing, flexibility, and support you need to be a productive employee or student.
**Mindfulness, Meditation, and Deep Breathing:** These practices emphasize present moment awareness.They sooth your sensitive nervous system, calm your mind, and provide a break from the constant cycle of worry and doubt.
**Pace Yourself and Establish a Routine:** Consistency in your daily schedule can provide a sense of stability and control and helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Maintain regular sleep, work, eating, and rest schedules. Allow yourself regular breaks throughout the day. This is difficult for many of us but you’ll find you get more done.
**Stay Active:** While our instinct is to hibernate, regular physical activity is a natural mood lifter. Find a winter activity you enjoy, whether it's indoor exercise classes, yoga, or even a winter sport. Even if these activities are difficult to come by, a nice brisk walk is also a wonderful way to boost your overall feeling.
**Mindful Eating:** Opt for a balanced diet rich in health-boosting nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and complex carbohydrates. Feeling healthier is also a good way to keep your body strong and stabilize your mood. Treats in moderation (and without guilt) are also welcome.
**Social Connection:** Keep in touch with loved ones. Isolation feels almost instinctual when you’re depressed; however, it can exacerbate feelings of sadness, so make an effort to maintain social connections, even if it's through virtual means.
Remember, it's okay to reach out for support, especially if you suspect you may be experiencing SAD. Seeking help is a sign of strength, and a mental health professional can provide you with the guidance and strategies needed to navigate the winter blues and SAD, ensuring that you emerge into spring with a brighter outlook. Don't let the cold weather dampen your spirit; take proactive steps to nurture your mental well-being and find joy even on the chilliest days.
We cannot wait for the weather to change before we begin to live.”
— Tim Farrington, A Hell of a Mercy: A Meditation on Depression
Psychotherapist Dr. Leavell is Here to Help!
Dr. Leavell specializes in helping individuals create solid coping strategies to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the colder months. With a deep understanding of the unique challenges that SAD presents, Dr. Leavell works closely with patients to develop tailored therapies and techniques that empower them to manage their symptoms effectively. Whether it's through light therapy, cognitive-behavioral strategies, or lifestyle adjustments, Dr. Leavell is dedicated to providing the support and guidance needed to navigate the winter season with resilience and a brighter outlook.
Doctor Leavell offers a variety of treatments to Massachusetts residents with anxiety, depression, chronic pain and a variety of stress related health conditions. If you need help finding a therapist in the Greater Boston area then we recommend reading our post that helps people find the right therapist. Learn more about her therapy services by contacting Dr. Leavell today to learn more how she can be of help.