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Winter Wonderland Blues

seasonal affective disoreder

To some people, winter brings snowfalls and shovels; to others, winter brings a form of depression.

Winter in Wisconsin isn’t ideal. The sun sets at half past four, the sky is a frosty shade of grey and roaring winds do little to motivate activity.

While some snowy spirits aren’t bothered by the multi-layered attire and waves of winter precipitation, others wonder, “Why go out?” Part of that population may suffer from a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in which someone with normal mental health throughout most of the year experiences predictable depressive symptoms during one particular season. It typically occurs in a recurrent cycle, year after year, and is statistically more prevalent in women (comprising 60 to 90 percent of people who experience the depressive seasonal pattern) and young adults.

In Wisconsin, SAD symptoms tend to begin during the autumn months (October and November) and become most severe during the darkest months (December and January). The symptoms begin to lift as the days get longer (February and March). Because of the length of winter this far north of the equator, symptoms often do not resolve completely until April or May.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, SAD isn’t a specific diagnosis, but instead an indicator of major depression. A deficit in melatonin, a neurochemical involved in the regulation of our mood and functionality and produced by our brains during the hours of darkness, appears to be related to the depression associated with SAD.

Symptoms of SAD tend to be similar to other forms of depression, such as decreased energy, inability to concentrate, increased sleep and daytime sleepiness, weight gain, loss of motivation for work, unhappiness and irritability, social withdrawal, and diminished interest in pleasurable activities.

“Typically, you’d have the majority of those symptoms for about two winter seasons,” says Leah Diedrick-Williams, a licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health coordinator for Ascension. “In between the winter seasons, there is a full remission. During the spring and summer months, the symptoms are essentially gone, but return in fall and winter.”

She adds there is a long-standing history of using light therapy to treat SAD. These special light boxes emit bright fluorescent light to mimic outdoor light and can be effective in causing a chemical change in the brain that lifts a person’s mood. When the light enters a person’s eyes, the retina alerts the hypothalamus (the portion of the brain that contains a number of small nuclei), which regulates sleeping, eating, body temperature and libido and is disrupted when a person suffers from SAD.

A common approach is to sit in front of such a light source for 30 minutes per day. This is best done in the morning, in order to avoid the side effect of insomnia. Symptoms of depression typically improve within three to four weeks if light therapy is going to help.

Antidepressant medications or talk therapy are also effective. It’s also recommended to spend time outdoors on sunny days to curb mild forms of seasonal depression and vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, three times per week, particularly during winter season.

Research supports that staying active helps reduce symptoms of depression and is hugely important during winter months. It’s strongly recommended to anyone with depressive symptoms.

If you have repeated seasonal depression, it’s advised to talk to a mental health professional about prevention methods, especially before purchasing a light box.


If symptoms are interfering with work and/or interpersonal relationships, make an appointment to see a health care provider as soon as possible. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or anyone else, call Affinity NurseDirect (800-362-9900).

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