Winter Blues

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As we approach this winter season and look forward to sweater weather, we are reminded that we all have our own favorite seasons. The reasons for it are varied. 

The transition of seasons may feel like a drastic change for some people. With winter just around the corner, some may start to feel the winter blues. As the temperature drops and daylight hours decrease, energy levels and moods may become negatively affected. 

Feeling less energetic or feeling low during the cloudy days of winter is quite normal. Indeed, winter blues is a general term, not a medical diagnosis, and as mental health expert Dr. Matthew Rudorfer puts it, “it’s fairly common, and it’s more mild than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time.” 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that some people may experience a more severe onset of winter blues. This condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and is considered a depressive disorder that affects 6 out of 100 people in the U.S. 

Specific symptoms may appear during the fall and winter seasons. Therefore, SAD is sometimes called winter depression. People who experience SAD display an overproduction of melatonin and underproduction of vitamin D due to less sun exposure as the winter days become darker. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad most of the day, almost every day
  • Decrease in energy levels or fatigue 
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Feeling agitated 
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty 
  • Isolating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

SAD symptoms may present in children and adolescents in additional ways, such as:

  • Changes in sleep, either insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Difficulty arising in the morning 
  • Irritability or sadness
  • Fatigue or lack of energy 
  • Changes in appetite or weight 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Withdrawal from usual activities 

This year, the symptoms of winter blues could be further aggravated by spending another winter in quarantine. In fact, past research examining seasonal depression symptoms suggests that isolation from family and friends during winter is a predictor of winter depression. This suggests that people experiencing winter blues are at a higher risk to present symptoms of SAD or experience severe symptoms while quarantined. Knowing this, you may be wondering how you can take even better care of your mental health. 

Managing symptoms can be challenging, but fortunately, there are treatment approaches that can assist in coping with SAD during the winter days. From medications to coping strategies, here are some approaches to combat symptoms of SAD: 

Antidepressant medications have shown to be effective in treating symptoms associated with SAD. Consulting with your doctor can help you find the right medication.

Light therapy (phototherapy). As the winter days become darker, the decrease in sunlight can trigger SAD symptoms. Light therapy acts as artificial light and can counter the decrease in sunlight. Light therapy can also be very effective for children and adolescents. Research has shown that light therapy dramatically improved sleep, appetite, speech, fatigue, and energy in children and adolescents. 

Vitamin D can greatly benefit those with SAD. Studies have shown that lower levels of vitamin D are linked to depression but increasing its levels may reverse this association. 

Therapy. Mental health professionals can provide assistance and support to people with SAD. In addition, therapists who utilize CBT can be effective in treating their client’s symptoms. 

According to a recent study, during quarantine, parents “can help to reassure kids/teens that they are safe at home and encourage them to engage in some healthy activities including indoor sports and some physical and mental exercises.”

Mental health professionals encourage people to take care of their mental health during the pandemic by:

  • Spending time with friends and family members, including children and elderly people. If face-to-face interaction is not possible, weekly virtual gatherings with friends can be arranged using available online platforms. 
  • Getting active by getting involved in different healthy exercises and sports activities.
  • Following a structured schedule or routine to help in keeping active and engaged in our day-to-day lives. 

Co-authors include Dr. Mercado’s Mental Health Lab at UTRGV: Pablo Ruiz, Sandra Valeria Chapa, Andy Torres, Frances Morales and Alfonso Mercado.

Dr. Alfonso Mercado