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Seasonal Affective Disorder:  The Winter Blahs

Winter.  The fun and distraction of the holidays are long gone, and warmer days seem a long way off.  It’s dark and cold when you get up in the morning, and dark when you come home from work.

If you enjoy skiing or ice-fishing, maybe you love January, February and March.  The rest of us, even if we enjoy the changing seasons, find that weeks and weeks of cold gets to be a bit much.  We’re less physically or socially active, our diet tends to be heavier, our skin is drier and we’re more prone to colds and flu.  It ain’t pretty.

Some of us find that winter is more than just annoying.  The short days seem emotionally darker and gloomier.  We find that we’re more prone to melancholy and feeling like we’re off track.  We crave sugary stuff, our sleeping patterns are different, and we find ourselves regularly getting depressed this time of year.  The technical term is Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD.

The SAD syndrome was first identified well over a century ago.  It’s thought to be related to the diminished sunlight that accompanies shorter days; our bodies respond to higher levels of darkness by producing higher levels of melatonin, the hormone often associated with sleep.  Our systems get out of whack; we feel more sluggish and crave carbs.  It’s almost like we’re preparing to hibernate.  Symptoms can range from mild – feeling a bit sub-par, but passing in a few weeks and no big deal – to severe – debilitating depression that seems to come year after year and fills us with dread.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help ease the symptoms of SAD.  Mild cases respond well to getting out and walking on sunny days.  Exercise helps, even if you don’t feel like doing it.  If you find you can’t do your full workout, do something – and do it several times a week.  Consistency helps, and exercise has been shown to lead to improved mood.

Watch those carbs; big swings in blood sugar can make mood swings more intense.  Getting healthy amounts of protein can help you feel more alert.

Do those lamps that mimic sunlight work?  There is research that indicates they actually do, for many people, although researchers can’t tell you exactly how.  A winter vacation to a warmer, sunnier climate might help a bit.

If you’ve had SAD for more than two consecutive years or if the symptoms are really messing with your life, consider talking with your physician about taking an anti-depressant.  (Hint:  ask about which ones avoid sexual side effects.  Finding that your libido has gone into hibernation isn’t likely to make you feel better.)  If you take an anti-depressant, you should expect to take it as prescribed, not just when you’re feeling blue.  And most of these medications take ten days to three weeks to build up to a therapeutic level in your system.  It’s best to start them a bit earlier rather than waiting until your life is out of control.  The medications aren’t candy; when you’re ready to discontinue them, talk to your doc again and taper off gradually to avoid problems.

Winter happens every year.  It only seems to go on forever.  

About John

I have been  licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years.  My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression.  My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships. 

I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems.  My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate.  If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.

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Whether you've worked with a therapist before or are exploring counseling for the first time, you probably have questions.  It is important to have the information you need to make a good decision when selecting a therapist.  I welcome your questions -- about your specific situation, about me or about my approach to therapy. Making things better can start with an email, or you can call me at (404) 874-8536.