The short, dark days of winter can be a big downer for many people who experience seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, during the coldest part of the year. SAD affects up to 20 percent of Americans and prompts symptoms including moodiness, loss of energy, overeating, social withdrawal, difficult concentrating and not getting enough sleep.
SAD is caused by a combination of decreased serotonin and increased amounts of melatonin. Sunlight enters the brain through the eyes, stimulating the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin that supports nerve cell functioning, including mood. Less light results in lower serotonin levels, while darkness stimulates the production of melatonin, which promotes sleep. This combination causes SAD.
While many people experience some elements of SAD, Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Mark Frye, M.D., suggests seeking professional help if your symptoms begin to affect your ability to perform at work or take a toll on your personal relationships. Seeking help is particularly important if you begin to feel hopeless or have thoughts of self-harm, he added.
Frye offers the following tips to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the winter:
- Get outside. There is no substitute for natural light. If you work during the day, try to go for a walk during a break or lunch.
- Brighten your day. Light therapy boxes can help boost your mood when you’re unable to get outdoors.
- Work it out. Get regular exercise, at least three times a week for 30 minutes, to combat those depressed feelings.
- Stay social. Interact with family and friends regularly.
“There are many people who experience winter blues. However, there are those who are experiencing more serious symptoms,” explained William Weggel, M.D., a Mayo Clinic Health System psychiatrist. “The good news is that in most cases, we are able to find a treatment plan to help the patient through the winter months.”