Seasonal Affective Disorder

I grew up in the southwestern U.S.—Southern California, Hawaii, and Arizona—and never experienced four seasons. My childhood seasonal experience was a mild winter and a long hot summer. The only time I saw snow was when our church youth group went camping in the Arizona mountains. I never saw autumn burst into color or learned to appreciate the appearance of the first crocus in spring. I never once had a snow day off from school. I didn’t own a pair of winter gloves, scarf or hat until I was 18 years old.

Growing up, I never experienced the winter blues or knew anyone dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of clinical depression that was first identified and named by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the early 1980s. More severe than merely the “winter blues,” signs of SAD can include a loss of energy, changes in appetite and sleeping habits, irritability, and loss of interest in socializing and other activities. There are a variety of treatments available, including medication, psychotherapy, vitamin supplements and light therapy.

For the elders in our lives, falls and hypothermia are typically what we focus on during the icy winter months, but seniors are also at risk for SAD. When conditions are slippery and cold outside, many seniors choose to stay home rather than risk a fall or other cold injury. By decreasing their time outdoors during the sunlight hours, they increase their chances of depression. If there is pre-existing depression then the condition is often aggravated further in the winter months.

A few suggestions to help avoid SAD are:

  • Daily walks in the outdoors should the weather permit.
  • Let in as much light as possible by opening blinds and curtains.
  • Try a phototherapy box, which gives off light that mimics sunshine.
  • Exercise regularly, even if it is indoors.
  • If you are alone, give a friend a call and wile away the hours in chatting when you cannot go outdoors.
  • Eat a healthy diet as vitamin deficiencies are sometimes an underlying component in depression.
  • Avoid alcohol to avoid making SAD worse.
  • Spruce up your home with winter plants and even opt for brighter colors on walls to distract from the gloomy conditions outside.

If you find yourself feeling gloomy because of winter and cannot shake the feeling, see your doctor. You may be experiencing clinical depression. A doctor can help identify if this is the case and may help with treatment and therapy.

So, you might wonder why I live in New England. I moved to Gloucester in the mid 1980s. Gloucester is so different from the world where I was raised. It took a while to adjust and acclimate to the changes. But, now the North Shore is my home. I have a full and wonderful life here. And, that life includes winter—with all of the difficulties it can bring.

But, the winter brings its own charm. I love the laughter of children playing in the snow. I love cuddling up on the sofa with the cat, a warm blanket, a cup of hot cocoa and a good book. I love that initial blast of cold on your face when you first leave a warm building. I love the comradery that we all share as we deal with whatever nature throws at us.

Winter can be hard and we have to remember to be smart in cold and icy weather. But, winter is also a time of hope and renewal. Why else would we get such a thrill from seeing those tiny, brave little crocuses poke up through the snow?