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Why Seasonal Affective Disorder Is More Than Just the ‘Winter Blues’

“Mommy, I know I’m not supposed to say that bad, four-letter S-word, but Daddy said next week it’s gonna S-N-O-W.” His eyes are big as he waits for my reaction.

“Yes, I know,” I sigh as I pack his LEGO lunch bag. “It’s November and it’s Rochester, so that doesn’t surprise me.”

I try to muster up some enthusiasm for my 8-year-old son, who has no reason to hate the impending winter like I do.

“I know you’ll have fun making a snowman and maybe we can even go sledding,” I tell him with a forced smile on my face. “Mommy doesn’t hate snow; I just don’t like how long the winter lasts here.”

I’ve lived in western New York for most of my 38 years, so I’m speaking from experience and possibly deeply rooted trauma from winters past. Living near Great Lakes Erie and Ontario, the Buffalo/Rochester region averages over 100 inches of snow per season. We may see the first flakes as early as October and as late as early May. (No joke — it snowed one year on my birthday. May 17!)

Pair those piles of the white (or grey slushy) stuff with the cloudiness, and it’s the perfect recipe for sadness. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), to be exact.

Yes, SAD is “real” — I’ve had people question me over the years, wondering if it’s a legitimate diagnosis or just a pop culture phrase that means “the winter blues.” But it’s more than just “the blues”SAD affects about 5% of adults in the U.S. and the symptoms can become so overwhelming to the point of interfering with daily functioning.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes seasonal affective disorder as “a major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, depression should be present only at a specific time of year (e.g., in the fall or winter) and full remission occurs at a characteristic time of year (e.g., spring).

Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling of sadness or depressed mood.
  • Marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.
  • Changes in appetite; usually eating more, craving carbohydrates.
  • Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much.
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours.
  • Increase in restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
  • Feeling worthless or guilty.
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide.

As a therapist, every winter I have clients come into our sessions looking forlorn and hopeless. “It’s snowing again,” they might say, or, “We haven’t seen the sun in over a week.” (Rochester is at the top of a national list for ‘cloudiest cities,’ so they aren’t exaggerating.)

Much like I did with my son, I try to remain positive by referencing how the weather forecasts sun by the weekend, or by telling them in February that the countdown is on until spring (though if we’re lucky, it will come in early April). We talk about coping methods like lightbox therapy, taking vitamin D supplements and getting plenty of exercise to naturally boost their mood.

But some days I feel just as miserable as they look, and it’s hard to do much other than validate and commiserate with them about the way the weather is taking its undeniable toll. Sometimes that’s all someone needs from a therapist, by the way: someone who doesn’t downplay or dismiss your feelings. But that’s a topic to cover at another time – maybe in spring, when I’ve survived the winter and crawled out of my SAD hibernation state.

Because that’s the promise, after all – spring always does come again, and we’ve managed to survive yet another dreary winter when we were at our most hopeless.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Pavel Chusovitin on Unsplash