Many of the people I see in my therapy practice are now showing the characteristic signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is depression that usually begins in the late fall and continues through the winter months. The typical symptoms are depressed mood, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, loss of interest in activities, appetite changes (especially a craving for foods high in carbs), weight gain, and difficulty concentrating. Research suggests that the prevalence of SAD in the adult United States population varies from between about 1.5 percent (in Florida) to about 9 percent (in the northern US). A milder form, called Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, affects an estimated 14% of the population.
SAD is a serious, even debilitating, condition for some people. But for the majority, the blue moods can be relieved by exercise and outdoor activity, especially on sunny days when there is increased solar exposure. Antidepressant medications are also sometimes helpful.
Another treatment is light therapy, which involves sitting near a specially designed light source for 30 to 60 minutes per day. The treatment devices are usually portable boxes that contain fluorescent bulbs and emit a type and intensity of light that isn’t found in normal household lighting. (Just sitting in front of a household lamp won’t relieve the symptoms.) Light therapy mimics outdoor light and is thought to cause a biochemical change in the brain that lifts the mood. Many people benefit from this form of therapy, while others feel no change. It has yet to be officially approved by the FDA, because the clinical trials of its effectiveness yielded mixed results. In any case, the treatment is easy to do and doesn’t seem to have harmful side effects. Those who want to try it can easily locate relatively inexpensive light boxes for sale at various online sites.
For most of us, the winter blues are mild enough that all we need to do to cope with them is change some attitudes. To begin with, it can be helpful to accept that a certain amount of melancholy is natural during this season. As the winter solstice approaches, the darkest time of the year, there may be a natural tendency for the body to hibernate, for the mind to become reflective, and for the heart to turn inward. But in our compulsively busy and “positive” culture the message is “sad is bad.” The solstice festivals observed around the world may be ways of bringing some cheer into the winter months, which is fine, but I think we try too hard. Instead of listening to our bodies and letting ourselves slow down a bit, we treat our winter blues by quickening our pace. Instead of respecting our moods and feelings, we grit our teeth and get with the “holiday cheer” program. From Thanksgiving through the New Year we host or attend parties, go into credit card debt to buy useless presents for people we rarely see, travel in crowded planes to uncomfortable places to be with relatives we don’t want to visit, eat too much sugar, drink too much, and sleep too little.
Ironically, the expectation that this is supposed to be a season of joy and celebration can make us feel even more down. The emphasis on family togetherness can feel bitter to those who don’t feel connected to family, which is true of so many in the LGBTQ community. The paradoxical effect can be that we focus even more than at other times of the year on scarcity and lack – on the losses, betrayals and failures in our lives, which exacerbate a sense of disappointment and loneliness. That’s why it can be so important to take some time to slow down during this season and to focus on the people and experiences that nourish us and connect us with a sense of abundance and fulfillment. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” All of us have treasures. To see them we need only to turn our attention away from what is lacking and focus on what is present.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website it www.tommoon.net.