Do You get S.A.D. in the Winter?

I hate talking about depression because, well, it’s depressing. But if you’re one of those folks who gets S.A.D. in the winter, or you know someone who does, you may appreciate this post.

I’m talking about Seasonal Affective Disorder, i.e., folks who start getting more and more fatigued and listless for no apparent reason as the days get shorter and grayer.

If you’ve been told that you must have some deep-seated negative association with winter, forget that BS. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a biologically-based depression. It’s caused by a malfunction in a natural phenomenon that occurs in all of us. This natural phenomenon developed through evolution.

In cave-person times (tough to be politically correct when talking about that era), those folks whose metabolisms slowed down in the winter, so they burned fewer calories, were much more likely to survive until spring.They dragged their butts through the winters. But when spring came, they’d come bouncing out of their caves, full of renewed energy now that the sun was bright. Much to the annoyance of their skeletal cave-mates who just barely made it through the first hunt.

photo by Lynn Kelley Author (from WANA Commons, share-alike license) Doing her spring happy dance.

I have a mild case of S.A.D. When I lived in Maryland, I would get increasingly grumpy in the fall. I often wouldn’t realize just how depressed I became during the winter months, until spring came along and I started feeling sooo much better.

It was kind of like a low-grade, chronic case of the flu–one where you don’t realize just how sick you’ve been until you start to get better.

In the winter time, all of us (thanks to that evolutionary tendency inherited from our more wintertime-lethargic, springtime-energetic cave ancestors) have an increase in the release of the hormone, melatonin, from the pineal gland. This hormone regulates our sleep cycles and promotes deep sleep.This increased melatonin release makes us all a little bit less energetic in the winter.

For those with S.A.D., the melatonin levels increase too much, causing more severe fatigue and lethargy. S.A.D. can range from mild cases like mine to people who become severely depressed in the winter.

What can you do about it:

1.  The first thing to do (and this may be enough if you have a very mild case) is go outside as much as possible in the winter, especially on sunny days. Because it is not the cold that triggers S.A.D., it’s the lack of daylight. In my thirties, I started horseback-riding regularly year-round. My S.A.D. got a lot better. It went from a moderate to a mild case.

2.  Light therapy. There are light boxes, and other devices, that simulate sunlight. These are specifically designed to treat S.A.D., although they serve other purposes as well. More on light therapy below.

3.  Move to a southern clime, (or at least winter there, if you’re retired or filthy rich). My S.A.D. is one of the reasons–a major one, in fact–for our move to Florida when my husband and I retired.

More about light therapy boxes:

If you think you have S.A.D. these are a worthwhile purchase. They can change your life. But do your research first to find the best device for your needs. Check out this article from the Mayo Clinic about how to choose a light box. They range from $100 to $400, and unfortunately many insurance policies will not pay for them. (But they will pay for antidepressants that cost that much or more per month or for hospitalization when you’re suicidal. Go figure!)

Light therapy lamp (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

A light therapy box.

Even if you have to pay out of pocket, it’s worth it to get your winters back! Someone asked me, shortly before our move south, why I was moving to Florida. I said, “Because I’m tired of wishing away almost half of my life.” I would start dreading winter by mid-October and wouldn’t really come out of it until some time in April. At that time, light boxes were much more expensive, but looking back, I should have bought one anyway.

Life is too short to spend anymore of it than necessary depressed!

Here are more tips on how to use light therapy effectively from PsychEducation.org.

Does this resonate with you? Do you think you, or someone you know, may have S.A.D.?

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)

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10 thoughts on “Do You get S.A.D. in the Winter?

    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the whole moving south idea. The whole country will be in Florida! LOL

      Reply
  1. Lynn Kelley

    Yes, this definitely resonates with me. I live for spring and summer and don’t like rainy days. Imagine my surprise when I saw my picture in this post and then read the caption! Are you psychic? I’ll have to check into those light boxes. Thanks, Kassandra!

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Hey, Lynn, glad you saw this. I meant to give you a shout out that I had used your picture. You are a very talented photographer (as well as children’s books’ author, btw, folks!)

      Definitely check out the light boxes. They can make a big difference.

      Reply
  2. Eden Mabee

    My husband has been suffering from the winter… slump, I guess would be the best word for it. He’s up and moving and doing things, but he is never happy about it. It’s an emotional thing as much. I suspect your lightbox idea would work wonders. Thanks for the post, Kassandra.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Thanks for stopping by, Eden. All too often S.A.D. gets blamed on other things and we don’t realize we are truly depressed. I used to call it my winter grumpies, and blamed it on ice and snow fouling up my plans.

      Please do give your husband a nudge to get a lightbox. I’ll bet he feels a lot better after using it for awhile.

      Reply
  3. Karen McFarland

    I’m glad you wrote this post. I think S.A.D. is a bigger problem than people think. And it is sad that insurance companies will pay for drugs and not something as simple as light therapy. That drives me nuts! Don’t get me going on that subject. Thanks Kassandra! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      I agree, Karen. It’s definitely more common than we think, especially the mild to moderate cases. Officially, it doesn’t even qualify as a disorder unless the person becomes fairly seriously depressed. Then it’s Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. That may be part of the problem with insurance companies not paying for the treatment. But like you, I probably shouldn’t start down that path! LOL

      What bothers me is that so many people are vaguely miserable for a large chunk of the year and don’t realize why, or that there are things they can do about it.

      Reply
  4. Chris Edgar

    I like the way you describe the change of feelings that occurs with the change of seasons as having a purpose — in this case, to help people to rejuvenate and recharge for the coming warmer seasons. I wonder if staying conscious of that purpose helps to put the feelings that accompany winter into perspective.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      That’s a very good point, Chris. I know when I first heard about S.A.D. I was relieved. It wasn’t just the cold turning me into a crazy person; I had a biologically-based disorder. And I also reversed my tendency to stay inside as much as possible in the winter to going outside when it was sunny.

      Also knowing we all have some natural tendency to slow down a bit in the winter, and that it serves a purpose, perhaps gives us permission to be more self-caring so we can do that rejuvenating you mention. Ironically, right before I saw your comment, I was debating between spending this afternoon at my computer working or curling up under a blanket on my sunny but chilly porch to read (temp today in North Florida is low 60’s). I think I’ll go for the reading!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Chris. *waves goodbye as gathers up Kindle and reading glasses* 🙂

      Reply

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