By Deniss Pleiner, M.A.
It's winter and it gets dark at 4pm here in California. You might have noticed that you've been feeling a little blue-- maybe even lower levels if energy, some irritability, and prefer to stay in with a warm drink. But you may also be noticing that it's more than just low energy. You may start to feel sad and sleep in more than usual. You may have a prolonged difficulty with meeting deadlines at work or completing your personal care. Whatever the case, let's talk about how to manage these symptoms and what you can do to help yourself.
Is it Winter Blues or is it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
It is usual for some of us to feel a little low and a little less motivated during the winter months when the days get shorter. As the holiday season and the end of the year get closer, we also loose some of our momentum (no one works much during the holidays anyway, right?). These might be what we call the winter blues.
But when you start to notice a significant change in your mood, feeling depressed most of the day on most days, and have a hard time keeping up with work or personal responsibilities, you might be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. It means it might be time to reach out for help.
For reference, here are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:
Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
Having problems with sleep
Feeling sluggish or agitated
Having low energy
Feeling hopeless or worthless
Having difficulty concentrating
Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
(If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.)
Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
Source: National Institute of Mental Health, 2022.
P.S. Seasonal affective disorder does not just happen in the winter months, some experience these symptoms during summer. To learn more about that, check out our blog article on the Summer Blues.
How to Manage Them:
Regardless of what you might be experiencing, here are a few things you can do:
Self-compassion in a through line here at TOC Therapy.. It's one of the pillars for all the work we do with our patients. Compassion breeds momentum and motivation, so start with that.
Know that there is nothing wrong with you, feeling blue is a normal response to the changes around you and if you are experiencing bigger symptoms, it is also not your fault.
Aside from the seasonal changes of less light and more cold (at least here in the US), you're also dealing with past and present environmental factors as well as past and present personal experiences. From personal loss and family dynamics to societal stress and anxiety like systems of oppression are also playing a role in your mental health.
Light therapy, Vitamin D, and Antidepressants:
Some people find it helpful to make use of these resources.
Light therapy is the use of a very bright light box (10,000 lux) every day for about 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning during the winter months. "The light boxes, which are about 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light, filter out the potentially damaging UV light, making this a safe treatment for most." (National Institute of Mental Health, 2022.)
Others take Vitamin D Supplements are based on the idea that there may be a connection between Vitamin D levels and SAD. Because we usually get our vitamin D from the sun and during the winter months, you may be getting significantly less. Studies here are mixed, so make the decision that feels best for you and consult your doctor.
Antidepressants: If you symptoms feel prolonged and significant, you may want to consider taking anti-depressants. This is a very personal decision and should be made after consulting trusted medical and mental health professionals.
Seek Extra Support: Therapy
Managing SAD symptoms can be a journey. If you've tried all else and are still having trouble managing it, you should consider seeking support. Even with medication and vitamin supplements, you might notice that when it comes to actually developing behaviors to help you-- you need support.
Working with a therapist who understands, respects and integrates your culture into treatment can make a world of a difference. The good news is you don't have to look to far. You can work with us by requesting a free consultation down below:
The winter blues can be experiences by all of us-- and it can feel worse when we re dealing with personal or community issues. Be gentle with yourself and we hope that this article has helped you brainstorm some possible actions for help.
Deniss Pleiner, M.A. is the founder and Clinical Director of TOC Therapy-- a group
practice in California tailored to meet the mental
health needs of BIPOC adults through
online individual and couple's therapy. As Clinical Director, Deniss guides the clinical development of TOC Therapy Associates and oversees clinical services and offerings. Deniss also works as a Mental Health Advocate, hosting workshops for organizations interested in supporting their
member's mental health and developing emotionally intelligent leadership.