Winter Blahs or Seasonal Affective Disorder?


Christina Bach, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C
Christina Bach, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C

It’s been a tough winter all over the United States.  From the polar vortex, to crippling snow as far south as Atlanta, to droughts in the West and the seemingly never ending train of storms rocking the east coast, most of us have had about enough of this winter nasty.  We are ready for some mild air, warm breezes and tulips and daffodils popping up.  Sadly, our friend the groundhog has forecasted another six long weeks of winter weather.

The winter blahs are tough to cope with.  The days are short.  Our exposure to sunlight is limited.  Our mood is glum and low.  Most people can cope with this seasonal feeling of being down in the dumps with coping mechanisms employed during other challenging periods – rest, physical activity, socialization, or perhaps travel to a sunnier spot.  But for some, this seasonal depression can lead to a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, or “SAD.”

SAD is defined as “recurrent episodes of depression, usually in late fall and winter, alternating with periods of normal or high mood the rest of the year.”   SAD is similar to other major depressive disorders in its symptomotology; including sleep and appetite disturbances, sadness, lack of interest in usual activity, hopelessness and increased social isolation.  The difference with SAD is that people with SAD experience an almost clockwork depression of mood, beginning as early as October and last well into March, followed by normal mood and activity pattern for the remainder of the year.  The most accessible and accepted form of treatment, beyond use of anti-depressant medication, is the use of a light box.  The person with SAD will sit in front of a lighted box for periods during the day to simulate exposure to the sun.    The exposure to light is thought to improve depressive symptoms related to the relative gray, dark, overcast days of the winter.  The important factor in diagnosing and treating SAD is to establish a pattern of seasonal mood changes.  This can be frustrating because it can take several years to identify a pattern.  It’s also important to remember that SAD is more than just being frustrated with the winter, the cold and the weather.  It is important to talk to your doctor, social worker or a psychologist if you feel you may be experiencing symptoms related to SAD for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Learn more about SAD.

Keep in mind, winter will end.  The sun will come out.  The temperature will moderate.  We will be able to go outside again without taking twenty minutes to put on all of our layers.  We will complain about heat waves in a few short months.    For now, stay safe, stay warm and enjoy those 30 degree days – they are downright balmy this year!