The “winter Blues” Debate

February 3, 2019
written by:Claire Brandon, M.D.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is often referred to culturally as “winter blues.” People often suggest that they feel more down and less motivation in the colder months of the year. They also seem to feel that they should “shake it off.” Diagnostically, SAD meets the criteria for major depressive disorder but has a seasonal pattern of symptom appearance. What are those criteria? That includes feeling down or depressed more days than not, loss of interest in usual activities, sleep and appetite disruptions, lower energy levels, decreased motivation and focus and decreased sexual desire.

It can also include thoughts about dying. Your primary care doctor or psychiatrist might use rating scales to see how severe these symptoms are for you to better monitor the condition and determine how and when to treat it. As a psychiatrist, I consider it just as significant as someone having major depressive disorder, which should be treated. But the question stands, does feeling down in the winter months mean SAD is rampant in the United States or is something else going on? 

Are you experiencing SAD or the Winter Blues?

It may be that there is a predominance of the winter blues in the United States, as depression rates and suicide rates continue to rise. However, I think it is also true that we are not as mindful about caring for ourselves during the colder months. In the absence of a depressive episode, we may regardless have less motivation to socialize, exercise, or go outside, getting some of the precious midday rays of sunshine and Vitamin D that we need.

It is also less appealing or easy to eat healthy. Coming off the holiday months where eating sweets and richer foods is accepted, it’s difficult to suddenly break that habit in the bleak winter. There is also likely an evolutionary component that we need to ensure that we stay warm during what would have been harsher conditions to our ancestors. Perhaps this also applies to conservation of energy, we huddle on the couch instead of making a trek to the gym. 

What can we do to break this cycle?

Figure out a planning style that works for you, consider writing down your goals, often easier to stick to than mentally making note of what you want to do. Writing it down makes it real. And then commit to it. Make it a non-negotiable in your schedule, whether that starting place is seeing your friends for a dinner, working out, or taking a midday break to see the sunshine.

Positive reinforcement can be a help in this as well. If your goal is getting up earlier so that you can work out, make sure you have your coffee ready on a timer, or drop off your laundry to be done instead of using up those hours that could be better used to help you feel better. 

If you feel that this has been a consistent pattern that impacts your life, i.e. you aren’t going to work or relationships are damaged by your behaviors, consider getting assistance with a medical professional like your primary care physician or a psychiatrist. Psychotherapy and medications can be helpful, and taking the first step to understanding what is going on with your mental health is always worth it. 

**This blog is not to be treated as medical advice, please discuss with your physician if you have any concerns.**

Claire Brandon, M.D.

Dr. Brandon is a dual board-certified psychiatrist in both adult psychiatry and consultation-liaison psychiatry (treatment of psychiatric illness in medically ill adults). She completed her residency and fellowship training at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and did a second fellowship in public psychiatry at New York University in New York City

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