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Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Our winter days are shorter and we are uncomfortably sandwiched between the long gone holiday season and the far off summer. Most of us find our mood declining with the decreased light and cold temperatures. Sometimes we just want to give up and spend the grey days with a pint of ice cream and a few episodes of that TV show. But much can be done to improve our mood and fight back against the winter’s power to slow us down.

The first step is to figure out if your winter blues are simply a low mood or part of the more complex Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In her informative interview in the American Psychological Association Press Room, SAD expert Dr. Kelly Rohan defined the disorder as, “a regular seasonal pattern of major depressive episodes during the fall and winter months with periods of full improvement in the spring and summer.” I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Rohan who informed me that as many as 5 percent of Americans experience SAD. While she cautioned against self-diagnosing and self-treating SAD, She had some great tips about fighting the winter blues:

  • Take a walk in the morning light. This allows you to get exercise which is shown to treat depression in general and also expose yourself to more sunlight which has also been shown in studies to effectively treat depressed mood in the winter months.
  • Modify your activities for the winter. Obviously you aren’t getting out that surfboard so see what hobbies you can take up that are more compatible with the season.
  • Plan regular social activities with friends or family that get you out of the house and battle the biggest of winter monsters: Hibernation!

If your winter mood causes significant impairment or distress in your life it may be part of a Major Depression with a seasonal component. If you believe this is the case, or you are unsure, it makes sense to see a licensed mental health professional. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is thought to be the treatment of choice.

Dr. Jonathan Fader is a clinical psychologist and Co-Founder of the Union Square Practice, a group practice offering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychiatry in New York City.

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