Coping with SAD, aka the “winter blues” : Oregon Health News Gives Advice
It’s the season for long, dark days. In Oregon, those days are longer and darker than many places in the United States.
Today, Dec. 21, is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Across Oregon, on average, we will enjoy just under nine hours of daylight today. That’s about seven hours less than we experience on June 21, the Summer Solstice, the “longest day” of the year. For some, the extended darkness is merely annoying, but for others it can be a serious health threat.
Many Oregonians tend to experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) more than people who live in southern areas of the country where daylight is more abundant.
SAD is a common type of mood disorder or depression characterized by its seasonal pattern. It affects millions of people in the U.S., usually beginning in the late fall and lasting into the spring or early summer, when the days begin to get “longer.” (SAD can also happen during the spring and summer months, but it is far less common.)
Anyone can experience winter SAD, but people may be more prone to it if they:
- Are female (four times more susceptible than males).
- Are ages 18-30 (initial onset).
- Live far away from the equator in northern latitudes.
- Have family histories of depression, bipolar disorder or SAD.
- Have low levels of Vitamin D (associated with low levels of the brain chemical serotonin and the hormone melatonin).
- Move from warmer climates, such as migrants, where SAD is less common and understood.
Source: National Institutes of Health
Symptoms of winter SAD
Many symptoms associated with winter SAD are the same for other types of depression, such as feeling hopeless, pessimistic, fatigued or guilty, or losing interest in hobbies and changes in appetite.
People with winter SAD will also experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating and craving carbohydrates (ie: starches) and sugar, which can lead to weight gain
- Social withdrawal or isolation (feeling like “hibernating”)
For most people, SAD is mild, commonly called the “winter blues.” But for some, it can be extremely serious.
“Unfortunately, many people believe seasonal depression is normal and may not take the symptoms seriously,” said Dr. Ruth Zúñiga, OHA senior health advisor and a licensed psychologist. “It’s important to understand that SAD is a mental health condition that can cause severe suffering. Some may want to die in order to end their pain, putting them at risk of suicide. They may talk about feeling hopeless or not having reasons to live, or they may seem withdrawn or show changes in their behavior. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or someone else, please seek help.”
If you’re in crisis or concerned about your symptoms, call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 24/7.
The “holiday blues”
SAD should not be confused with the “holiday blues,” which is when someone experiences symptoms of depression between November the start of the New Year, or during other holiday periods. It can happen when someone reflects upon the loss of a loved one, for example, or they are lonely or feeling social pressures. The holiday blues are not related to lack of daylight, but those prone to SAD may be more likely to experience holiday blues.
“This is a tough time of year for a lot of people,” Zúñiga said. “Feelings can range from mild sadness to severe suffering. Regardless of what is causing the ‘holiday blues,’ or the longer period of SAD, it’s always a good idea to talk to a health care provider about it or seek out support. And if you know someone who appears to be struggling, reach out and talk to them about it. There’s a good chance they will be grateful for your concern.”
Tips for coping with seasonal affective disorder
- Talk to your health care provider if you are considering taking supplements, such as Vitamin D (which can be toxic of taken in large quantities).
- Soak up the sun when it’s available. Go outside or brighten your surroundings by opening blinds or curtains to let in sunlight.
- Take a walk or spend time in nature. Outdoor light (even if it’s cold and cloudy) can help, especially if you go outside within the first two hours after waking up. This can help control the brain’s internal clock, which is affected by the lack of light in winter and promotes brain chemicals (such as serotonin) that contribute to mood.
- Get regular physical activity. This is a powerful tool to relieve stress, eliminate toxins and deal with anxiety and symptoms of depression.
- In some cases, using a special light box or lamp can be an effective form of treatment. Talk to a health care professional about options.
- Stay connected with loved ones, family, friends, your community and support networks. Discussing your concerns and feelings with someone you trust, can help your mood. Commit to reaching out to at least one person a day to maintain your social connection.
- Avoid drinking alcohol. Alcohol can lower the levels of chemicals in the brain that help regulate mood. Lower levels of these chemicals can make a person with depression more depressed.
- Seek professional mental help support.
- Supporting Your Mental Health During the Holiday Season from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers strategies and resources to help people during the holidays.
- The Senior Loneliness Line of Oregon is a free, statewide 24/7 call service for Oregonians 55 and older. Call 503-200-1633 or 800-282-7035.
- Call or text 988 or chat at 988Lifeline.org to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Trained crisis counselors can help you or a loved one with any kind of mental health-related distress, thoughts of suicide or self-harm, or substance use crisis. Learn more here. Spanish speakers can call 988 and press 2.
- Oregon YouthLine is a teen-to-teen crisis and help line. Call 877-968-8491 or text teen2teen to 839-863. Trained teens are available to help daily, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. (adults are also available 24/7).
- OHA’s mental health resources blog offers multiple resources for a variety of communities, age groups and challenges.