Helping Americans

Live Healthier, Happier Lives


Beat the Winter Blues

December 29, 2018

If you’re not dreaming of a “White Christmas” and you don’t really feel like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, don’t worry: you’re not alone.

Up to 6% of the population in the United States reportedly suffers from winter depression, also called “seasonal affective disorder” or SAD. Another 14 percent of the adult population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues. That’s according to world-renowned psychiatrist, Norman E. Rosenthal.

Dr. Rosenthal and his colleagues were the first to describe SAD in a journal article in 1984, based on study in Maryland. They found that while it “‘Tis the Season to be Jolly” for many people, for others, the time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s is often filled with sadness and depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that occurs annually, most often in fall and winter, when the days are shorter and darker. While it does happen at other times of the year, the reason it occurs most often during the winter is that one of the main causes of SAD is the lack of sunlight.

Dr. Rosenthal found that the prevalence of SAD increases the further people live from the equator (or in other words, the further they live from the sun). In one study, researchers found only 1.5 of the population in Florida suffered from SAD, while in New Hampshire, it was almost 10% of the population.

Winter blues, technically called subsyndromal-SAD, is even more common. Besides the lack of light, there are two other major causes of SAD and winter blues. People with family members who suffer from SAD, or other forms of depression, are more likely to be predisposed, and women are four times more likely to develop the syndrome than men. The other major cause of SAD is stress. And when it comes to the holidays, stress is a very common occurrence.

You may not be able to change your climate, location, gender or genetic predisposition, but there are things you can do to cope with SAD.

Because one of the main contributors to seasonal affective disorder is the lack of light, there’s an easy way to combat that, even if you can’t afford a trip to the Caribbean. Light therapy involves simply bringing more light into your environment during dark wintery days.

So bundle up and take a walk outdoors, even on a dark day. Take some time in the morning to soak up whatever rays you can catch outside. If it’s too dark or you’re too busy, bring more indoor light into your home or office. Simply add more lamps, or look into the use of special light fixtures, also known as light boxes.

However, when it comes to dealing with the stress of holidays, you may find there’s no simple solution. Dr. Rosenthal says that during the winter, people with SAD have a reduced ability to handle stress, which can push them deeper into depression. Unfortunately, the winter months also amps up stress with an array of demands like shopping, cleaning, baking and entertaining. There’s also added financial stress, family issues and a feeling of loss for people who are missing someone during such a family centered time of the year.

One way to combat stress is to play defense. For example, don’t undertake projects with an early spring deadline, because you know you’ll be adding to your stress load in the winter. Don’t feel pressured to host parties if you think you can’t handle them, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from family or friends if you do.

Plan out your spending ahead of time, and try to stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much you can spend, and then try to stay within that range. You can’t buy happiness with a mountain of gifts, so don’t try. Family and friends will understand if you decide not to stretch yourself thin financially.

Another great tip for handling stress is to make time for yourself. Whether you decide to try meditation, yoga, or just down time reading in a quiet space, spending time on yourself can reduce your stress. The holidays are usually about giving of your time and money, but you’re no help to anyone if you’re suffering from depression.

Regular exercise can be an extremely helpful way of managing SAD symptoms. Besides the obvious physical health benefits, staying active can be positive for your mental health as well. Just regular walks outdoors can be great exercise, or you can step it up a notch and hit the gym. The most successful form of physical activity is any one that you find interesting enough to stick with. As an added bonus, the holidays usually mean more food consumption than normal, so getting a little extra exercise certainly won’t hurt.

Speaking of holiday binges, people with SAD often crave sweets and starches, according to Dr. Rosenthal. Those kinds of foods do boost energy briefly, but then there’s often a rebound. And when people feel tired and lethargic, they tend to indulge in more sweets and starches. Dr. Rosenthal encourages people to eat diets high in proteins, vegetables, unprocessed foods and complex carbohydrates. While that may be difficult when you’re sitting down for a holiday dinner, don’t restrict yourself too much- many people find restrictive diets just cause them to gorge themselves later on.

If taking time to yourself, getting regular exercise and eating healthily isn’t cutting it- you may want to consider professional help. Talking to a professional therapist about your depression, especially around the holidays, can be a positive way to help you deal with feelings of sadness. The holidays can be a lonely time if you’ve lost family members or other loved ones- the cheerfulness of the holiday can be a big reminder of your loss. Surrounding yourself with people you care about can help, and so can talking regularly with a professional.

For some people, a healthy lifestyle isn’t enough to rid themselves of all their SAD symptoms. Antidepressants can be a valuable part of your SAD management regimen. Dr. Rosenthal advises that the more effective the other aspects of an anti-SAD regimen are, the lower dosage of antidepressants will be needed. Rosenthal’s research shows that some SAD sufferers may need different dosages of antidepressants at different points in the fall and winter as the amount of sunlight waxes and wanes.

If all else fails, and your winter blues are a major and annual problem, it may be time for you consider either a seasonal or permanent move down South. SAD and Winter Blues are serious problems, and treating your symptoms can be a key factor in maintaining a healthy and happy life, year-round.