It’s that time of year again…winter blues

Released: 01/13/17

Bridgette Hensley, Psy.D., WMC's 2017 Provider of the Year.

It’s that time of year again…winter blues

Does it seem like sunsets arrive prematurely and the sunrise is scarce in the early hours? During this time of year, many people report having the winter blues. In fact, they may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). “The onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder can occur during any season but winter onset is often referred to as the winter blues. Symptoms usually appear during late fall and early winter and can last through spring or summer, when days are longer and brighter,” says Bridgette Hensley, Psy.D., LD, Mayo Clinic Health System psychologist at Winneshiek Medical Center Decorah Clinic. Many people experience some change in mood and functioning (i.e. fatigue, energy level, appetite) at the change of a season but generally people acclimate.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is different because it is a subtype of Major Depression.  Symptoms of SAD are consistent with symptoms of major depression and can last anywhere from several weeks to several months: feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, having low energy, feeling hopeless or worthless, losing interest in activities you once enjoy, having problems sleeping, experiencing changes in appetite (especially craving foods high in carbohydrates) or weight, having difficulty concentrating, feeling agitated or sluggish, experiencing a heaviness in arms and legs, and having thoughts of death or suicide.

According to mayoclinic.org, the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may come into play include:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). Reduced levels of sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood.
  • Melatonin levels. Changes in seasons may disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Treatment for SAD is important to avoid chronic or re-occurring depression. Treatment may include light therapy, medications and psychotherapy.  These self-help tips can also be useful in treating SAD:

  • Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds and trim trees that block sunlight. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
  • Get outside. Take a walk or just sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms.

“It’s normal to have days when you may feel down,” says Dr. Hensley. “But if this feeling lasts more than a few days and you just can’t seem to get motivated to do things you enjoy, you should see your doctor.” In addition, if you turn to alcohol for comfort or discover that sleep patterns and appetite have changed or you have feelings of hopelessness, these are all signs to seek help by making an appointment with your local doctor. If you have thoughts of suicide, please seek help now by calling your local crisis line (Northeast Iowa Behavioral Health Crisis Line: 1-800-400-8923 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or by reporting to your local emergency room.

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