We just changed the clocks this weekend, and with daylight savings time comes shorter days, colder temperatures, and darker mornings. In fact, there are probably more days than not were you both go to work and come home in the dark. The lack of sun and daylight can have a negative effect on mood. You may find yourself feeling grumpier, sadder, lonelier or more lethargic than usual this time of year. The gloominess can have an actual biological effect on some, leading to what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual - IV identifies as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). (As of the DSM-5, SAD is classified as major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern).
People who suffer from SAD typically experience symptoms that are very similar to symptoms of depression: decreased energy, feeling sad or low, irritability, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities that are usually enjoyable and changes in sleep patterns. While depression can trigger changes in appetite, individuals with SAD specifically crave carbohydrates, and also actually report eating more carbohydrate-rich foods in the winter. Additionally, individuals with SAD typically only experience depression-like symptoms during the cold, winter months.
Comparison of Seasonal versus Non-Seasonal Depression Symptoms
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep patterns and that is also linked to depression. It is released at nighttime to help an individual sleep. When it is light, such as in the morning, much lower levels of melatonin are secreted in order to promote wakefulness. As a result of changes to our circadian rhythms, the brain goes into overdrive and produces more melatonin, thereby disrupting the body’s natural levels and disrupting sleep patterns and mood.
- Serotonin: Lower levels of serotonin are produced as a result of decreased exposure to daylight. Serotonin is linked to levels of happiness and calmness, and deficits of serotonin are linked to depression, weight gain and fatigue.
How to Treat the Winter Blues
What can you do to treat the winter blues? Even with mild or moderate changes in mood, there are a few things that you can do to make yourself feel better.
- Phototherapy (or Light Therapy): Bright white fluorescent light has been successfully used to treat both mild winter blues. Normally room lighting is typically not bright enough to be beneficial, however exposure to a light box or a special lamp can be extremely effective. The light box must emit light that is the artificial equivalent of early morning daylight (2500 to 10,000 lux), and individuals should use the light box for 15-30 minutes a day in the morning to help reset their circadian rhythms. As circadian rhythms are reset, serotonin secretion is increased and melatonin levels are suppressed. Additionally, exposure to bright light effects mood in ways comparable to antidepressants. Buy your own light box here or here.
- Dawn Simulation Alarm Clocks: Dawn simulation alarm clocks produce light that gradually brightens over the course of 30 minutes before you awaken. The slow progression of light is thought to signal the brain to stop producing melatonin, so as to promote wakefulness and awaken the person gradually. Buy one here.
- Air Purifiers: Dr Michael Terman, Director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, has found a link between ions in the air and depression. Exposure to high levels of negative ions for 30 minutes can dramatically improve mood. He says that "Natural concentrations of negative ions are highest at the seashore, by the pounding surf, or right after a spring thunderstorm," he says. "That's why many people report a spontaneous elevation in mood from being at the beach." Negative ionizers release lower levels than the ionizers he used in his study, but they can nonetheless still have a positive impact on mood. Buy one here.
- Stay Active: There is strong evidence that shows a positive link between exercise and mood. While getting up in the early morning hours, or hitting the gym straight after work can be a difficult routine to maintain - especially when its dark -, it is important to stay committed. Exercise is a great mood booster as it relieves stress, releases endorphins and keeps you feeling accomplished. So keep yourself motivated to stay on target with your workout goals. (See tips on staying motivated here).
- Take Advantage of the Season: I too am one of those people who enjoy sun and sand and drinks with tiny umbrellas in them, but that doesn't mean there are not aspects of the winter that I can find enjoyable. Embracing the season and what it has to offer can help improve mood and help you to enjoy the wintry months. Despite the dropping temperatures, is there anything about the winter that you can tolerate? Try enjoying a seasonal flavor coffee from Starbucks, see a holiday themed show like A Christmas Carol or the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. Book a ski trip, or a winter get-a-way with friends. Try a new winter sport! The key is to focus on the positive aspects instead of dwelling on the negative.
- Challenge Your Negative Thoughts: Are your thoughts just as dark and gloomy as the weather outside? Challenge them by trying to stay focused on the positive. Reframe the thought by looking at it as an opportunity to try something new, or by focusing on the bigger picture.