Do you notice yourself feeling “down” the deeper winter gets? Do you find yourself with increased negative thoughts, less interest in your hobbies or passions, withdrawal from loved ones, or sleep issues?
There are many, many “moods” or feelings that seem to warrant their own medical condition, conflating real issues with a temporary bad day or week. However, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real condition, and can make otherwise normal or happy people feel weak and confused.
If you live somewhere far north, where sunlight is much more scarce and it gets too cold to even safely step outside sometimes, you’re more likely to be affected by it. For instance, one statistic puts the rate of SAD diagnoses at almost 9% in Alaska, contrasted with less than 2% in Florida.
A Personal Anecdote
At the risk of making this an “auto-ethnography”, I’ll give myself as a personal case study to counter the study claiming that SAD isn’t real. (Comments on this study will be at the end of the article). I’ve lived all over the United States, mostly in the southeast, spending a couple years in California. Winters in these places are relatively mild; I still ran outside in January and February. About 5 years ago, I relocated to the Upper Midwest. Thanks to the effect of the Great Lakes, there can be a period of weeks where you won’t even see a peek of sunlight, and frostbite warnings are frequent.
I’m usually a high-energy, optimistic person, but I started noticing depressive moods much more severe than just a “bad day”. I’d feel like I were looking at the world with a muted color palette instead of my usual vibrant one. I went about my duties, workouts, and hobbies just fine, but the typical enthusiasm wasn’t there. I’d never had this issue anywhere else I’d lived, nor did I experience it in the sunnier seasons.
What Helps, and What Doesn’t
Telling someone who says they feel a bit depressed during the winter to just “be positive” and “get over it” definitely doesn’t help. The issue isn’t with someone’s attitude towards life, and the person is likely trying quite hard to regain their usual self.
What seems to help me are the following:
- at least 10,000 IU of Vitamin D supplement daily
- light therapy. (I use this light while I’m working or reading, particularly in the afternoons. I am not endorsed by this company.)
- purchasing blue light blocking glasses (I’ve tried these, and again am not endorsed.)
- making a conscious effort to “cozy” the house with candles, hurricane lamps, and soft yellow lighting
- supplementing magnesium (although this one is harder to pin down as a noticeable effect because I’ve only tried a few different chelating agents)
- continuing to lift, even on days when I mentally don’t want to
- enough cardio in the morning to release endorphins (swimming and rowing are my two favorites)
- regular bed time rituals, and regular waking rituals
Other things that have been suggested as remedies:
- Increased fish consumption. For example, Icelandic and Japanese people seem to be less prone to SAD than other northern countries, and it’s noted that the per capita consumption of fish is 90 kg and 60 kg annually, compared to 24 kg per capita in the United States. I plan to increase my fish consumption this year to try it.
- Aromatherapy I’ve enjoyed eucalyptus essential oil, any evergreen oil, and this “calming blend” in a diffuser. The effects may not be clinical or chemical, but I find it easier to control my mood when I take the time to enjoy the aromas.
- trying to get out of the house or do some amount of socializing, even if the enthusiasm for it seems low
I don’t think turning to SSRIs or any other pharmaceutical solution should be considered unless there seems to be no other option, if at all. (If you or someone else is suicidal, please seek immediate medical help through a hotline or other service in your country.)
Regarding the Legitimacy of SAD
Some medical doctors lump SAD into a category of disorders that they don’t believe truly exist. The main study claiming such is a 2016 study from Auburn University. Taking the time to read the study, one notes that it is first and foremost an empirical study, and based entirely on participants’ responses to a questionnaire regarding depression. The exact wording of the questionnaire can be found here. My issue with this study is that the authors were trying to see if seasonal affective disorder meets the criterion for a major depressive disorder. I find that to be a straw-man argument; seasonal affective disorder doesn’t rise to the level of major depression. In my opinion, the study is disingenuous and assumes that there is no such thing as mild depression. Therefore, if the patient isn’t majorly depressive, they must not be depressed at all. I also take some issues with their statistical methods, but that’s just pedantic at this point.
Versions of “winter blues” or SAD, or whatever name we give it have pervaded many cultures for generations (particularly northern ones). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we spend a lot of effort and time on winter festivals and Christmas cheer. We are trying to find happiness in the dark with Christmas lights, carols, warm soups, family time, games, and special baked goods. These small rituals give us hope and something to look forward to until the sun returns in the spring.
If you or someone you know seems to be more depressed around the winter time, don’t dismiss it. Don’t assume you’re weak-willed or that there’s something truly “wrong” with you. Definitely don’t berate yourself or someone else for having these issues. “Just keep lifting, bro” is only a tiny part of a solution.
Light therapy and Vitamin D supplementation have been the most noticeable remedies for me; I can actually feel the difference mentally if I skip either one for a day. Experiment with some or all of these suggestions to find what works best for you.