Just a few hours after I had “de-Christmas-ed” the exterior of our house on New Year’s Day, and several neighbors on my court had done the same, I took the dog out front, looked around and sighed. Save a few houses on the block, our street seemed dark and lifeless compared to the jubilant feeling it had the previous few weeks when it glowed with red, green and white, electric snowflakes and smiling Santas.
When I came back in, I remarked to my wife, “I totally get why seasonal depression is a thing.”
Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately abbreviated to “SAD,” is the official name for an extreme version of the winter blues, depression that occurs during the winter months, “bringing lethargy and curtailing normal functioning,” according to WebMD. Research suggests SAD may affect as many as 11 million people in the U.S., and the milder “winter blues” affects some 25 million people.
It’s hard not to be a little, well, sad when the holidays are over, especially if you have kids. From Halloween until New Year’s, it seemed, my family was constantly on the go with various activities, gatherings and celebrations. For some people, that might be stressful. Me? I love it.
Every now and again, I enjoy a weekend with nothing to do. But too many of those days in a row, and I get a little stir crazy. During the months of January and February, when it’s cold and gray outside (today’s sunshine and temperatures in the high 40s notwithstanding), and not a lot of hustle and bustle, I tend to get a little glum that there isn’t something to immediately look forward to.
I’m not sure that’s the exact, or clinical, definition of the winter blues, but it’s how I tend to feel this time of year.
SAD is a different beast altogether. When feelings of depression start to infiltrate all aspects of your life — your work and your relationships — and gets progressively worse through the winter months, you might be suffering from SAD.
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Health experts say that a lack of natural sunlight that occurs in the winter months can actually cause a dip in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects your mood, and alterations in melatonin, a hormone associated with your mood and sleep. All of that contributes to the winter blues and SAD, and you may find you’re getting less enjoyment out of life.
If you start finding yourself having difficultly sleeping or difficulty taking initiative, or maybe feeling less social than usual (notwithstanding burnout from the social gatherings that are a hallmark of the holidays), then you might be dealing with seasonal depression. Sleeping too much or overeating are also signs of SAD and the winter blues.
When you’re feeling depressed most of the day or almost every day, or you’re struggling to focus, feeling constantly fatigued and/or hopeless and you’ve lost your enthusiasm for activities you typically enjoy — or worse, you’re having suicidal thoughts — that’s when it’s probably time to see a doctor about seasonal depression.
In most cases, you can address the winter blues or SAD without a medical prescription. Spending time outside when the sun is up is a good starting point. Simply taking a walk during your lunch break and exposing yourself to natural light can boost serotonin production and improve your mood.
Getting more exercise too, something most of us could probably stand during the winter months after indulging throughout the holidays, has a strong connection with mental health, especially depression, experts say. It boosts serotonin and endorphins, which both affect our mood.
If that doesn’t work, your doctor may recommend light therapy to mimic the sunlight, or medication if necessary.
My personal recommendation: Take up a new productive hobby. When I end up feeling bored in the winter time because there isn’t much else going on, I tend to start thinking about home improvement projects I can do on my own. It’s a great time to de-clutter a few rooms in the house (especially if you got a bunch of new stuff for Christmas), or paint, replace a light fixture or whatever else you’re comfortable doing. If you’re not confident about your abilities to work on your home, there are endless other possibilities. Find something that makes you happy and get to it!