On and off during the many Winters I lived in New Jersey, my friends and I would joke about how we had SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. "Ugh, it's so cold and dreary out. I'm depressed," I'd tell my BFF over coffee at a local cafe mid-February. She'd confirm the "diagnosis," saying, "It's SAD." We'd laugh and I'd vow to move to Florida.
For me, this exchange wasn't completely a joke. After months of braving temperatures under 30 degrees, rarely seeing the sun, and everything around being gray — the sky, the road, the trees without leaves — I felt more than a little blue. As a stay-at-home mom, not having the option to take my kids outside (sorry, not having my littles play in 22 degrees!) was taking a toll. I felt cooped up, bored, lonely, and depressed.
I felt cooped up, bored, lonely, and depressed . . . I used to think there was something wrong with me, but there isn't.
Each year around the time I was pretty sure I'd forgotten what sunshine was, we took a trip to Florida to thaw out — I'm lucky, I know. I'd spend that entire week outdoors from dawn until dusk, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my skin, smiling more than I had in months. I always noticed how significantly my mood seemed to improve, but I figured it was a vacation high, and that when my sadness took over again, it was because it was time to head back to the dark, dank northeast. It would be several weeks before it warmed up, we could spend any significant amount of time outdoors again, and my mood would turn.
After years of plotting, planning, and fantasizing, my dream to move to Florida came true, and after spending my first "Winter" here, I know that seasonal depression is real. I'm happier in January and February, because it's warm enough to be outdoors most days, and the sun shines as often. Trees stay green, and the grass isn't covered in snow. I see pink flowers and blue sky. Most importantly, I'm able to feel the warmth of the sun on my face. It's medicine for the soul, I swear!
I didn't move here solely to escape long Winters, but I'm not mad at how much better my overall mood is since we made this life change. I used to think there was something wrong with me, but there isn't. And no, it's not about just sucking it up. According to Psychology Today, seasonal affective disorder afflicts as many as 10 million Americans.
I talked to Ken Yeager, PhD, LISW, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to find out more about what seasonal depression is, exactly. He said, "Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that affects people at the same time each year, typically over the Winter. People have a circadian rhythm, or biological clock, that is driven by serotonin and melatonin levels and can be thrown off course by prolonged dreary weather."
Yeager explained that serotonin is a chemical messenger the body produces for the nervous system, and is thought to affect mood and appetite. He added, "Your body makes the hormone melatonin in part to help you feel the urge to sleep and to wake." Low levels of sunlight can trigger a serotonin reduction, and definitely impact your mood. "Gray days also can wreak havoc on the body's melatonin levels, making it harder for some people to get started on dark mornings," he said.
Symptoms of seasonal depression are sadness, fatigue, depression, hopelessness, social withdrawal, and weight gain. "Some people may experience anxiety, loneliness, mood swings, or a loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed. Sleep problems, including excess sleepiness, insomnia, or sleep deprivation may occur," Yeager said. The good news is there are things you can do to lift your mood, even during the bitterly cold and dismal months. Of course, not everyone can move to Florida, but a visit to a warmer climate, if possible, can do the trick, albeit temporarily. Yeager also recommends talking daily walks outside to boost your mood (soon after waking is ideal). "The exercise releases endorphins, chemicals that spark a positive or euphoric feeling in the body. The morning sunlight exposure keeps that body clock on track," he said.
If it's just too polar vortex-y to step foot outside, another way to boost your mood is to take advantage of natural light coming through the windows in your home. "When curtains are drawn or blinds are closed, you don't benefit from any natural light that's out there. If necessary, rearrange your interior to maximize any sunlight that filters through on cloudy days," Yeager suggested. "When there's little or no natural light, you may need to create some of your own. Buy a light box, which mimics the natural outdoors, and position it by your desk or chair for about an hour each day. The light box turns off the melatonin production and helps boost the serotonin in your body, but be sure to choose one that filters out harmful ultraviolet (UV) light." Staying social and active helps, too. You can also ask your doctor about upping your vitamin D intake.
It's important to understand that everyone has off days when they feel sluggish or super unmotivated to do anything other than binge on Netflix and eat an entire jar of peanut butter with a spoon (just me?). But Yeager said if your sadness becomes part of a regular pattern, you should see your doctor. "If your symptoms are disrupting your life or occurring for days or weeks, or you are experiencing major shifts in your sleeping or eating patterns, that may be cause for concern," he advised. Also, if you find you're avoiding interacting with people, seek help. If you have any suicidal thoughts, don't be ashamed to ask for help immediately.