During the winter months, some people feel like their normal personalities have deserted them. They're lethargic, irritable and moody.
These symptoms, often referred to as the winter blues, are indicators of a very real condition. Doctors call it seasonal affective disorder — or SAD.
SAD describes a period of depression or low mood that's linked to a particular time of the year. Symptoms often begin in November and abate in the spring, says Dr. Rimal Bera, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at UCI Health.
Who SAD affects
Even people who haven't been diagnosed with a chronic mood disorder, such as major depression, can experience subtle symptoms of SAD each winter. Between 4% and 6% of Americans suffer from SAD while another 10% to 20% have a milder form of the condition.
It's natural to blame holiday stress for moodiness during winter months. But studies show that SAD is most likely caused by less exposure to sunlight because there are fewer daylight hours. People in northern states, where cloudy winter days are common, have higher rates of SAD compared to people in southern states.
"During the holidays, being alone or being around certain family members can be stressful for some people. But holiday stress coincides with a cause of SAD,” Bera says. “The shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is Dec. 21."
Having a family history of depression or suicide can be an added risk factor for a mood disorder, he adds.
"We're still learning about the underlying causes of SAD. But one thing we do know for sure is that light exposure can be beneficial in treating it."
How to relieve SAD
- Just getting outside more, especially in sunny climates like Southern California's, can help people who are suffering from SAD, he says.
- Light therapy is also effective. It involves sitting each morning for 15 to 30 minutes under a special lamp or light box that simulates sunshine. This additional exposure to light is thought to stimulate neurotransmitters that elevate mood.
- Medications, such as antidepressants, can also alleviate symptoms. People who are being treated for chronic depression may find that their condition worsens during the winter months and may need light therapy, additional counseling or a change in medication.
Do you have winter blues?
These are some of the symptoms or characteristics of seasonal affective disorder that people report experiencing during winter months.
- Disturbances in sleep (either too much or too little)
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in weight
- Changes in energy level
- Feeling guilty
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol
- Thoughts of suicide (call a doctor immediately)
If you are experiencing two or three of these symptoms, talk to a doctor to discuss a possible diagnosis and treatments.
"People don't have to suffer in silence with this condition," Bera says. "There is help out there."