As the winter months approach, we begin to expect colder weather, holiday festivities, cozy nights in and the like. But for many, the earlier sunsets and barren trees foreshadow something far less jolly: seasonal depression. If you find yourself feeling more lethargic, less motivated or inclined to stay in bed for longer than usual as temperatures drop, you may have a case of the winter blues. If your symptoms are more intense, such as loss of interest in normally enjoyed activities, hopelessness and the inclination to isolate yourself from friends and family, you could be experiencing a more extreme form of the winter blues known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

Symptoms resulting from the change in season can be expressed in varying intensities, ranging from a mere low mood to a crippling depressive episode. If you’re experiencing symptoms of the winter blues, it’s important that you not only recognize such signs, but validate them and take positive steps toward a healthier holiday season, regardless of the severity.

If these symptoms sound familiar, the good news is that you’re not alone. According to Rush, about 6% of Americans experience SAD, and about 14% of Americans experience the winter blues. Conversely, only around 7% of American adults have experienced at least one major depressive episode, making the winter blues approximately twice as common as major depressive disorder, and even more so in the northernmost regions of the country. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to struggle with SAD or the winter blues.

Because of the commonality of the winter blues, many people assume that they should be able to simply handle the symptoms, as so many others do. Many may also think that spring will come soon, so seeking help or treatment is a waste of time. However, symptoms of the winter blues can be debilitating and interrupt normal patterns of your daily life, no matter how long they last or how many people around you experience them. Your motivation to seek help, in any situation, should not be dependent on whether or not others do the same. If you’re struggling, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Of course, actively seeking support is easier said than done, but taking steps toward improvement is an important skill that should be practiced nonetheless.

The easiest steps to improving your mood during the winter can be derived directly from the widely accepted causes of seasonal depression. Both SAD and the winter blues result from the disruption of our circadian rhythms by the darkening of the skies during the season. Our bodies recognize that it’s nighttime by the amount of light that can be detected. When there’s less light, our brains recognize that it’s time to rest, and our bodies secrete melatonin, the natural hormone that allows us to sleep. Usually our bodies are right in their assumptions about when to fall asleep, however these assumptions begin to falter during the winter months. The darkness consumes more of the day and our bodies, thinking it’s nighttime, continue to release melatonin, causing daytime lethargy. Cue: the winter blues.

Most scientists accept that the lack of natural sunlight is the culprit. Fortunately, a solution exists for those who can access it. Light therapy simulates natural light, resetting our bodies’ internal clocks and mitigating the symptoms of the winter blues. The process simply requires one to consistently sit or work near a light box for around half an hour each day. Light boxes provide the natural light that prevents the secretion of melatonin at the wrong times, targeting the primary cause of the winter blues. The University of Michigan allows students to access light boxes around campus at no cost. These can be found at the Counseling And Psychological Services Wellness Zone in Pierpont Commons, as well as on the lower level of Shapiro Undergraduate Library. However, with COVID-19 limiting accessibility to light boxes in public spaces, students may find more success in purchasing their own light boxes if they can afford it to treat symptoms of the winter blues.

This year, though, the winter blues may hit a little harder than in past winters. Feelings of isolation are already widespread as a result of COVID-19 and the onset of the winter blues for many will only make them worse. As the winter approaches, make sure to safely stay connected with friends and family through socially distanced or virtual events. Also, given that so many experience symptoms of seasonal depression, don’t be afraid to talk to others about your feelings and reach out to your loved ones to help them better handle the lethargy of the season.

The winter blues are common, especially here in the northern part of the country. If you’re feeling more down than usual with the impending winter, you’re in the same boat as many others around you. However, this doesn’t mean you should simply grin and bear it. Your struggles are valid, regardless of who does or does not share them, so take steps to make the season a little more jolly for yourself and for your loved ones.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu.

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