Between the cold weather, the short days and long nights, and the after-holiday crash, the early months of the year are often a downer for people. For some, in fact, the winter blues can reach the level of full-blown depression, reaching its nadir in the depths of winter. Mental health experts call it seasonal affective disorder, and it affects as many as 20 percent of people in some parts of the country.
Seasonal affective disorder is considered a type of clinical depression—the fact that it fades as spring approaches does not mean it is any less serious. However, many sufferers feel that the temporal, and temporary, nature of the condition marks it as not worthy of treatment, or as something that can’t be treated. Seasonal affective disorder can occur in people who have no symptoms of depression at other times of the year, or people who are depressed can find it worsening in the fall and winter.
It most likely happens because people, like a lot of animals, go into a sort of shutdown mode in the wintertime. Humans don’t hibernate as thoroughly as bears do, but a general cutting back on activity saves energy during a time of year when our ancestors may have found food relatively scarce. In addition, the changes in the amount of sunlight affects the circadian rhythm—the body’s sleep-wake cycle. This affects the levels of chemicals in the brain that regulate mood, making people broodier in the wintertime. This can be exacerbated by other factors. For example, the cold weather means most leisure time is spent in isolation at home. Residual holiday stress may linger, no longer balanced by the distractions of holiday festivities, and paying for it adds another layer of worry.
Whatever the cause, it’s important not to let seasonal depression keep you down. Spend low-impact time—coffee, bowling, something indoors and inexpensive—with friends you may not have seen during the holidays. Keep up your exercise habits, or the habits you resolved to develop. If you’re already in therapy for depression, make sure to make and keep appointments during the winter. A doctor may be able to help you get a light therapy box, a special light designed to offset the effects of winter darkness on mood. Even without a light box, getting as much light as you can will help smooth things out, as can fresh air.