The “winter blues” have been mainstream for decades, but is it rampant in our society, or is it more of a trend steamrolled by popular opinion and exposure? This article aims to reveal what experts say on this matter and shed more light on the true color of winter.
What is it?
Seasonal Depression, also referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a mental diagnosis that follows the seasons. Usually occurring in the late fall and early winter months, this mental disorder keeps individuals feeling sluggish, tired, and depressed for a recurring period of the year.
Additional Symptoms of SAD consist of low energy, oversleeping or undersleeping, difficulty concentrating, agitation, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, loss of interest in activities, anxiety, changes in appetite, and weight loss or weight gain to name a few. Seasonal affective disorder can affect almost every area of life.
The reality of SAD
One major misconception about SAD is that it only occurs during the winter months. While it makes sense that the colder and darker days of winter can lead to a decrease in serotonin, SAD is seen as a serious diagnosis that is not bound by any one season or month.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines seasonal affective disorder as “a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year. Therefore, the signs and symptoms of SAD include those associated with major depression.”
However, for around 10 million Americans, when the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, it can be harder to be productive, active, and connect with those around them. Seasonal depression is often correlated with winter because activities are primarily indoors, and sleep patterns can often be disrupted by the change in light exposure leading to this grogginess and lack of motivation.
22-year-old Haley French says, “The darker days and the shorter days definitely make you lose the desire to really do anything. I definitely feel exhausted.”
For these reasons experts suggest light therapy and a regular sleep schedule as essential remedies for the “winter blues.”
Light therapy, when used in the first 30 to 45 minutes when a person wakes up, exposes those with depression to bright illuminance that is 20 times brighter than common indoor light. According to Dr. Paul Desan, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University of Medicine, “[Light therapy] should stimulate your body to produce the right hormones to increase your wakefulness and alertness to get you through the day.”
Is SAD becoming a trend?
However, with the 10 million Americans that are clinically diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, there is a growing cultural narrative that winter is sad and depressing. This spring, while the weather is warming up, flowers are growing, and a growing number of people are venturing outdoors, I have seen an increase in comedic social media posts about seasonal depression.
These posts say things like, “Thought I was depressed. Turns out I just needed sunshine.” and “Don’t forget: drink water and get some sun. You’re basically a plant with more complicated emotions.”
These posts show how much the lack of sunlight and warmth is related to sadness and depression. And while seasonal depression is a genuine reality for millions of Americans, the increase in social media posts made me question whether SAD is clinically growing or if it is becoming a trend.
And while 3% of Americans suffer from SAD, with another 10% diagnosed with a mild case, Maggie Mertens, writer for The Atlantic, also questioned the accuracy of the narrative behind the “winter blues.”
In her article, she details the research of Steve LeBello, a psychologist at Auburn University, who did an experiment to see how nationwide SAD really is. However, after conducting a nationwide survey intended to track depression and anxiety year-round, LeBello found that the depression rates were “flat as a pancake all the way through the year.” They found no correlation between the level of sunlight or temperature with depression.
Mertens found that, if as many Americans who say they experience seasonal depression really face the hardship and lower productivity that follows, then society would experience a major stagnation that just does not occur. Many people find the winter be to just as stimulating and productive as summer.
42-year-old Kate Sedrowski says, “The chill in the air of winter makes me feel more alive and alert…The shortness of the days in the winter forces me to take advantage of the daylight to get things done before I relax and hibernate when it gets dark.”
Mertens argues that the sluggishness of the winter season could be mistaken for depression when it could be a disrupted sleep schedule.
After her research, Mertens concludes, “Today, an estimated 4 to 6 percent of the U.S population experiences SAD during the winter months…which is in no way commensurate with the casual way so many Americans apply the term to themselves.”
Conclusion and Solution
This is not to say SAD doesn’t exist nor should be given the proper attention, but that our negative view of winter may result from a cultural narrative that prejudices our psyches into believing winter is terrible.
Personally, I have learned to love winter. And while the cold and gray environment can sometimes take a toll on my mood, winter is a special season for its cozy potential. My winters are now filled with turtle necks, sweaters, mittens, hot cocoa, warm candlelight, and a good book by the fireplace. Not only that but winter is charged with anticipation that makes the spring and summer months that much sweeter.
So, while seasonal affective disorder is a very real and crippling diagnosis for millions of Americans, our society could benefit from additional media attention focused on the good and pleasant parts of winter. Because maybe a change in the narrative can cause a difference in your mood. And as a society, we may find that winter really isn’t so blue.
Edited by: Whitney Edna Ibe
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