Are You S.A.D. in the Winter? (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

Since I’m up to my eyeballs in three different editing projects, I figured now would be a good time for an encore presentation of a previous post, and this topic is always worth mentioning this time of year.

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, doing her spring happy dance (from WANA Commons, share-alike license).

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’d 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. The 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 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 is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

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4 thoughts on “Are You S.A.D. in the Winter? (encore)

  1. Cindy

    When I lived in Maryland, I would feel like this. I loved autumn though. But once Christmas was over, it was depressing. And having January birthday didn’t help. I hated driving in the snow. Hated the cold, dreary days! Seemed like spring would never get there.

    In Florida, I don’t get like that. Gotta love the sunshine and better able to cope with a cold day here and there. Nothing like the long winter up north.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      You totally described my experience of winter in Maryland, Cindy. Except my birthday’s not in January. That would have been super depressing to me.

      Glad we both found our way down to sunny Florida. Winters are milder and best of all, much shorter!

      Reply
  2. Vinnie Hansen

    My husband (from Detroit) and I (from South Dakota) both moved toward California as soon as we could. For me, that was the day after I graduated from high school. Neither of us cares if we ever see snow again. I don’t know if we suffered S.A.D. while growing up, but even recently when we considered a move to Bellingham, WA, we both decided it rains too much there. We strongly value living in a place with a temperate climate where we can be outdoors almost every day.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      I wish I’d moved to a sunnier clime a lot earlier in my life, Vinnie. And I also love being outdoors, even if I’m just sitting on my porch while working on the computer or reading.

      I feel more alive outdoors. Not sure how much that is connected to my S.A.D. Even just having the windows open improves my mood. (Had the back door hanging open for a while today!)

      Reply

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