Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Originally Published: October 6, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: February 7, 2013
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Alice,

Every winter, especially when the days are short, I feel tired, depressed, and unproductive. Then the spring comes and I start feeling myself again. Is this just a normal seasonal cycle? I've heard about SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, but don't know much about it.

—Melancholy Baby

Dear Melancholy Baby,

Nobody knows for certain how common Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is, but researchers estimate that it may affect as many as five percent of United States residents, or about 14 million people. Many more experience some of these same symptoms, though mildly or inconsistently — sometimes merely because they work in dark or windowless offices. In fact, it's long been known that the short dark days of winter can cause people to experience a distinctive type of depression and malaise. SAD, in particular, has been defined as follows: fall and winter depressions for at least two years, alternating with non-depressed periods during spring and summer; at least one disabling depressive episode; no other major psychiatric disorder; and no other possible explanation for the mood change.

People with SAD tend to sleep more, be less productive at work, have less energy for recreational activities, including sex, and feel down in the dumps for no particular reason. They tend to eat more (especially sweets and starches) which, together with a low activity level, may lead to winter weight gain. Generally, the SAD months are November through March, January and February being the worst. Of course, this reflects the population average. At the extremes, annual SAD relapses can begin as early as August and end in January, or they can begin as late as January and last through June. SAD could be an explanation for the above symptoms, even if you experience them beginning in, say, October.

If you think you might have SAD, or a milder form of seasonal depression, here are some initial steps you can take, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH):

  • Make your house, apartment, or room bright. Keep the curtains open. Use bright colors on walls, upholstery, and bedding.
  • If you are in an office, ask if you can work near a window.
  • Try to go away on vacation in the winter — somewhere sunny and warm!
  • Exercise outdoors. If you exercise indoors, try to do so near a window.

Light therapy is another method of SAD treatment. It requires regulated exposure to intense light: a light box consisting of fluorescent bulbs and a diffusion screen. The degree of light intensity, length of therapy sessions, and the time of day that this treatment is used have a major impact on the success of this treatment, according to preliminary research findings. For more information on light therapy, read Seasonal Depression and Light Therapy? in the Emotional Health archive. 

If you find that you are unable to remedy your winter depression on your own, you might consider consulting a psychologist or psychiatrist. S/he can coordinate your anti-SAD efforts, from stress management techniques to antidepressants to light therapy. Columbia students can make an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (Medical Center campus). Treatment is also available to eligible Columbia students and staff in the Winter Depression Program at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). Columbia students can contact this program for an initial, confidential inquiry which will be followed up by a screening questionnaire and description of the clinical trials available to volunteers at no cost.

Hoping this response has shed some light on the situation,

Alice