Dealing With Winter's Shades of Gray

Coping with seasonal affective disorder

Living in New Hampshire at this time of year is a bit like being in the “Wizard of Oz.” With summer long gone and fall nearing its end, we leave the luscious, vibrant Technicolor of Oz and return to drab, colorless surroundings. Faced with months of gray days to come, some of our residents — human and otherwise — have wisely abandoned ship for more hospitable climes, leaving the rest of us to wonder if another polar vortex or seemingly endless winter might be in store.

The seasonal darkening of the days is enough to make anyone feel a little low. But while many of us — aside from skiing and outdoor-skating enthusiasts, perhaps — dread the looming winter, individuals who suffer from seasonal affective disorder or “SAD” feel the effects of winter’s arrival to a more pronounced degree. SAD is a form of depression tied to seasonal changes.

Fewer daylight hours and meager amounts of sunshine during the cold-weather months “definitely affects my moods and my quality of life,” says Keith, a longtime NH seacoast resident who says he experiences SAD symptoms. “If we have two or three days of cloudy weather with no sunshine, I feel that.”

Like most SAD sufferers, Keith says he begins to feel tired and not quite himself when the daylight hours dwindle, particularly from early December through mid-February. “Every year, it’s the same,” he says. “I think it affects my emotional well-being and my personality. Certainly it affects my energy.” And temperature has nothing to do with it. “Even if it’s five below, the temperature doesn’t affect my mood at all. I don’t mind the cold,” he says. “It’s the day in and day out of dreary weather — the bad weather and that lack of sunshine.”

Seasonal affective disorder can affect just about anyone, but is most common in young adults and women. A personal or family history of depression heightens a person’s risk of developing SAD, as does geography; SAD rates tend to rise as people’s distance from the equator increases. New Hampshire ranks high in SAD incidence among states across the country, says Jennifer Casey, MD, a Dover psychiatrist.

SAD symptoms can vary in form and severity, but often include decreased energy, diminished interest in normally enjoyable activities, oversleeping and overeating — particularly where starchy, carbohydrate-laden foods are concerned. SAD can also affect concentration, Casey says. Most often, SAD symptoms appear as the amount of daylight fades with the changing seasons, and symptoms linger throughout much of the winter. The root cause of SAD is not fully understood, but many experts believe it is triggered by the meager amount of light that reaches the eyes in winter. Light exposure affects biochemical balance within the brain, which in turn influences our mood and sleep patterns.

Preventive steps and treatments can ease the effects of SAD, however. Exposure to bright light helps counteract scant daylight, so getting out in the sunshine when it is available, or even spending time outside on gray days can be beneficial (don’t forget the sunscreen even in winter). In addition, after consulting a doctor, many people benefit from light therapy or “phototherapy” sessions in which they sit close to a light box or other electronic device that emits bright light to mimic the outdoor sun. Antidepressant medications can also effectively deal with SAD symptoms. But simply “being out in the sunlight in midday and or having 10,000 lux of light to your eyes for 30 minutes a day” helps many people, Casey says. In fact, “it can work better than antidepressants,” she says, and creates no side effects in most individuals. It is also cost-effective since it costs nothing to step outside, and some insurance plans will cover the purchase of a light box.

The mood-boosting payoff of exercise has also been proven to be an important and effective way to deal with SAD, Casey says. But if increased light exposure, exercise and the like don’t help, or if they lead to sleeping troubles or excess energy, you should seek professional medical help, Casey cautions.

Keith, whose SAD symptoms are bothersome but not debilitating, has successfully developed his own approach to dealing with SAD. He exercises regularly throughout the year, and on sunny Sunday afternoons in the cold-weather months, he relaxes in a beach chair in front of his home’s south-facing picture window for about 90 minutes while imagining that he is on the beach. An artificial palm tree purchased by his wife “helps set the mood,” he says. “I also play island music, and I typically will wear my beach hat.” He acknowledges that it might look a bit strange, but says, “I look forward to it — I really do. It’s an event for me.” He notices a marked difference in his mood after soaking up the rays. “It’s impressive how good I feel when I get the direct sunshine. It definitely gives me more energy and a better outlook.” 

Categories: Features