Lots of people get that ‘blah’ feeling as cold weather, shorter days and gray skies set in, but you might be surprised that for many, it’s more than just the winter blues.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that’s associated with episodes of depression related to seasonal variations of light. It’s a very common and treatable disorder affecting up to eight million Americans every year.
Carol Wozniewski, executive director of Mental Health America of Illinois, says many people unknowingly endure this disorder.
"Anytime something begins to impact your daily routine and activities, you should see someone," she says.
SAD is likely the result of one of two biological changes.
Similar to what happens with animals who hibernate in winter, when melatonin (a sleep-related hormone) goes up as light dwindles due to seasonal changes, "our biological clocks can change internally and become out of step with our schedules," says Wozniewski.
Or, she explains, some experts link SAD to serotonin (a neurotransmitter that onsets "happy symptoms"), which is at its lowest levels in our systems during winter and spring.
January and February, she says, are usually the most difficult months for people. And it’s important to note that SAD is not the result of a weather change, but a decreased exposure to natural light.
SAD, which impacts women four times as often as it does men, should be diagnosed by a mental health professional or a treating physician, and though it’s most common in the third decade of life, it can also affect younger people, including teenagers.
"Parents should ... look for mood swings or temperament and behavior changes in different seasons, since it could be something else," says Wozniewski, adding that if you’ve been diagnosed, you should be more conscientious about looking for signs in your kids, since all mental illnesses have genetic components.
Wozniewski offers signs to watch for—in yourself and your children:
n Sleep disturbances (such as the desire to oversleep or disturbed sleep patterns) or difficulty staying awake and getting tired earlier
n Lethargy, feeling fatigued
n The inability to keep to your normal routine or schedule
n Overeating, especially craving starchy or sugary foods
n General signs of depression
n Avoiding certain social situations
n Loss of sex drive or libido (parents), or disinterest in physical contact (anyone)
n Extremes in your mood
What can you do to help your kids (and yourself) feel better? Definitely see a professional. Treatments such as light therapy, talk therapy and antidepressants have all proved effective.
"Just a half hour of walking outdoors equals two and a half hours of light therapy," says Wozniewski, who recommends family walks.
She adds that anything that allows more natural light into your home, your workplace and your child’s school is optimal.
"Help is out there," says Wozniewski. "There’s no reason for anyone to unnecessarily suffer."