Maybe you start to feel it as the days get shorter, or it really kicks in when it’s getting dark out at 4:00 in the afternoon. You might be dreading the dark, cold days of winter for more reasons than just having a lot of snow to shovel. You’re not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subtype of major depression that the National Institutes of Health estimates affects 6% of the US population, primarily those living in northern climates. Another 14% of the US adult population suffer from less severe form of seasonal mood changes, sometimes referred to as “winter blues”.
Since SAD is a form of major depression, it is important to be aware of the symptoms of depression in yourself or your loved ones. According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms may include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms specific to winter onset SAD or “winter blues” may also include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
It’s okay to have bad days, or to feel down on occasion. However, if you’re feeling bad or experiencing these symptoms for days at a time, or if they are affecting your ability to get out and do the things you enjoy, you should talk to your doctor. This is especially important if you are experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns, or thoughts of suicide.
What Causes SAD?
While the exact causes of SAD or Winter Blues are not know, it’s believed that changes in the amount of sunlight can throw off your internal clock (circadian rhythm) and leave not sleeping well, or feeling tired and depressed. Reduced sunlight levels may also decrease your body’s production of serotonin, a chemical that affects mood, and melatonin, which also has a role in mood and sleep patterns.
When the weather is freezing cold or you’re snowed in by a blizzard, you’re probably also not getting enough exercise, which can decrease your energy level and add to feelings of depression. Being reluctant to leave the house may also leave you feeling like a hermit!
What Can Help?
First of all, I’m a massage therapist, not a psychologist, so please, if you are feeling depressed or suicidal, contact a professional. You can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or on their website suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Next, try to get out of the house! Call a friend for lunch. Go to that party even though it seems like a lot of work to put on boots and a coat. Get out for a walk, or snowshoe, or ski. If cold weather exercise is not your thing, join a gym or go walk in the mall. Take yourself on a date to a museum or a movie.
Of course, massage therapy can help! It has been shown that massage has positive effects on the body’s chemistry. Cortisol levels, which can increase with stress, are decreased. Production of serotonin and dopamine increase, which can improve your mood and reduce feelings of depression. Massage also lowers your blood pressure and reduce chronic pain that may be affecting your sleep.
If you’re struggling with SAD or just feeling down, talk to your doctor, then consider giving regular massage a try. It’s important to take time for yourself and take care of yourself, despite (and because of) all of your responsibilities and stresses. Besides all of the chemical and physical benefits, massage just simply helps you “feel good” and can help you get through the worst of the winter blues.