Winter Weather Brings the Blues

Winter is not always a wonderland in the Northeast.

“It’s awful,” said Victoria Howland, a SUNY New Paltz grad student from Port Ewen.  “It’s oppressive.  The sky turns gray and the sun doesn’t come out for days.”

College students find the icy weight of winter heavier than just runny noses and 4 p.m. sunsets.  The lack of sunlight can lead to the potentially debilitating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can be seen on the SUNY New Paltz campus.

“It’s considered a serious depressive disorder,” said Marian McClellan, a psychotherapist and social worker in Kingston.

Long nights, late sunrise, early sunset, constant cloud coverage and generally less intense sunlight plague the Hudson Valley. Colder weather, darker days and sicker students herald the change of seasons.

Family, friends, homework and class make true hibernation impossible, yet forced inside, seeking out the dark, fluorescent warmth, we naturally tend to exercise less, and eat and sleep more to cope with winter conditions.

Electricity allows us to fight back against darkness and make progress.  The interruption of the rhythm of the natural sleep cycle, psychologists argue, leads to symptoms of SAD, said Dr. Michael Terman, expert on SAD, in an online interview.

SAD is more severe than the “winter blues.” SAD is characterized by extreme mood swings and lethargy not common in those simply yearning for warmer weather.

“It’s different than a diagnosis of major depressive disorder because it’s so closely linked with changes in seasons and the body’s intake of light,” said Dr. Mark Balaban, Senior Counselor at the Psychological Counseling Center.

Some symptoms of SAD are similar to symptoms of major depressive disorder, Balaban said, like feeling low, uninterested, withdrawn and vegetative.

Weight gain, carb cravings, loss of libido, inability to think clearly, anxiety, irritability and impatience are common. The immune system often slows, and some SAD sufferers even report suicidal ideations, or feelings of suicide.

Studies indicate that inadequate light creates a chemical imbalance in the brain – a lack or limit of production of the chemicals serotonin or melatonin, or vitamin D.

“Anytime somebody notices that type of [depressive] pattern in the winter or fall, Seasonal Affective Disorder is definitely a possibility,” Balaban said.

In order to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, try:

Light Exposure: “Increased exposure to sunlight does help,” Balaban said.

Phototherapy:  Phototherapy, also called light therapy, used in the morning for a half hour to several hours a day, prove very effective against the symptoms of SAD. Treatments include wearing hats, helmets, boxes or visors providing intense light directly into the face.

Go Outside: Get fresh air.

Vitamin D:  In 1998, a psychopharmacological study titled “Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during the winter,” linked supplements of the vitamin, which we absorb from the sun and our bodies use to create serotonin, “lightening” feelings of winter depression.

Plan Something:  Perhaps a vacation to a warmer location, perhaps a party.  It will provide you with something to look forward to and to focus on despite depressed feelings.

Exercise, Eat Right and Sleep Well:  Exercise releases endorphins which make you smile.  Proper sleep and nutrition help regulate chemicals like serotonin and melatonin.

Meditate:  Use this still and peaceful time of year as a vehicle for contemplation and meditation.

Socialize:  Stay positive through a network of supportive friends.

Medication/Counseling:  Many doctors treat SAD as they would any other psychiatric disorder, with counseling or antidepressants.

Remember:  This too shall pass.  Each year we forget how drastic the changes in the environment are, and the darkening effects of the winter on our perspectives.