Midwesterners know the psychological effects of a persistent winter ennui brought on by bitter cold, limited sunshine, post-holiday letdown and severe cabin fever.

“People tend to lose their normal routines during the holiday season,” Jean Lubeckis, an Employee Assistance Program therapist with Franciscan Alliance, said in explaining the annual uptick in the number of people contacting her office during the first few months of the year. “Adjusting back to those routines can be challenging, especially when it comes to resuming healthier eating habits and exercise. In addition, depression can set in because people are disappointed in themselves, they miss family and friends, or they’re stressed about money if they overspent.”

But while the post-holiday blues and the numbing sameness of seemingly endless gray days may cause most people to simply groan and look ahead to the warmer and brighter months, for others the wintertime malaise is more than just an annoyance. For sufferers of seasonal affective disorder — anywhere from 1-10 percent of the U.S. population, according to estimates from the National Institutes of Health — what may seem to be acute winter blues is a much more serious condition that can alter their lives and well-being.

“The so-called ‘winter blues’ are generally fairly mild in nature, but seasonal affective disorder is a much more serious medical condition,” said Jodi Thielemann, a clinical adviser with Mental Health America of Lake County Inc. “While the exact causes of SAD are unknown, the reduced sunlight that we are exposed to in winter is thought to lead to a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical affecting mood and circadian rhythms.”

It can be difficult to pinpoint the difference between typical winter blues and SAD. According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD can begin at any age, but typically starts in people 18 to 30 and tends to be more common among women than men. Though SAD can last up to 40 percent of the year, it is generally worse in January and February and tends to occur more in the northern part of the United States where winters are harshest. SAD can vary from mild to severe and can include symptoms similar to major depression, such as feelings of sadness, marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite and sleep (usually too much of both), loss of energy or increased fatigue despite extra sleep, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide.

“There’s a difference between being cooped up and bored because you’re tired of winter and suffering from SAD,” Lubeckis explained. “People might sleep more or gain weight from lack of exercise or boredom, but their activities of daily living will not be seriously compromised; that is, they can concentrate, they can function at work and at home, and any loss of interest in activities they used to do is more likely to be because they are tired of doing them, rather than they have no interest. After the holidays, it’s normal to feel a little bit sad and disconnected and to miss the festivities and excitement. But if these ‘blues’ are keeping you from normal activities or you stop doing things you like for more than a couple of weeks with no improvement or if you develop sleep and appetite issues, it’s likely that SAD or another form of depression is occurring.”

For those diagnosed with SAD, treatment options may include antidepressant medication, relaxation activities (such as yoga) and phototherapy, a technique that uses a special light box to mimic outdoor light and cause the types of changes in brain chemicals that the sun would.

Even those not suffering from SAD can take steps to help alleviate seasonal depression, such as eating nutritiously, exercising (particularly outdoors in the daylight), making plans with family and friends, volunteering, or taking up a new hobby or interest. However, Thielemann said the most important thing to do is to simply make a concerted effort to get back into the healthy habits and routines that were working before the dead of winter set in.

“Whether you have SAD or are just a little blue from all the gloomy days and being stuck indoors, it is important to maintain good sleep hygiene, continue to exercise, and make time for self-care activities at this time of year.”

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