Seasonal Adjustment Disorder

Do you struggle in the winter months? The cold dark mornings and gloomy oppressive skies by teatime can make it very hard to cope. You’re not alone – many of us struggle during this time with low energy, a self-defeating urge to mainline sugar and carbs, and an overwhelming yet undefined sadness.

If your symptoms persist, year after year, and seem to be getting worse, you might have “Seasonal Adjustment Disorder” – also known as “SAD” (see below). Even if you’re not on the clinical “SAD” chart, you may have a negative reaction to your current climate. Some people who suffered as children found that their symptoms lifted when, as adults, they moved to sunnier spots.

If that sounds nice (for them), but just not possible (for you) we’ve got some ideas to help you make it through the holidays and into spring without incident.

How do I know if I have “SAD”?

According to the National Institutes of Health: “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.”

Although SAD is not considered as a separate disorder, but more of a subset of “Major Depression,” some signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Problems with sleep
  • Changes in your appetite or weight
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

Talk to your primary care provider about your symptoms – and if you’re feeling suicidal, please call the national hotline immediately, or talk to friends who get it, and are just willing to listen. Remember that friends would rather spend hours listening to you tell them what’s (really) going on, than a few awful minutes sitting through your eulogy. You matter.

But we know that on a dark winter morning, when it’s been freezing out there for days, and you just want to curl up and hide, the despair button looms large in one’s mind.

Is there a DNA-link to “SAD”?

That’s an interesting question – it does look as if there’s a biological determinant to SAD. According to the NIH, people with a history of depression in their family are often prone to suffering with Seasonal Adjustment Disorder.

They might also have trouble in regulating serotonin (one of the key neurotransmitters involved in mood), overproducing melatonin (the hormone which regulates sleep), and a deficiency in Vitamin D. You could ask your primary care provider to check your levels and perhaps administer supplements, medication, and/or give you a referral for a good therapist.

Are there non-clinical treatments?

The best therapy for sadness during the dark winter months is – no surprise here – light. As natural lumens are in short supply during this time of year, bring on the light boxes. One of our Nano researchers lived in NYC for several years and said that they couldn’t have made it through winters there without one.

Several brands are available, but they suggested this one from Philips, because it has not only 10 different light settings, but simulates a slow thirty minute sunrise, complete with birdsong (seriously), filling the room with an intense, bright yellow, 200 lux vibrant morning glow. “It certainly made mornings possible in Manhattan in January,” they told us. “And I was a much nicer person by the time I arrived at the office after trudging up Sixth Avenue in the dark cold morning – yet again.”

How do they cope in Northern climes?

You’re right – there are some places, like Denmark, Finland and Iceland (not to mention Russia) that spend months in the dark – and those cultures have created rituals to embrace the season.

Have you heard of “Hygge” (pronounced “hue-guh”)? It’s hard to translate exactly, but it’s Danish for a sense of cozy contentment. Picture heavy wool blankets, hot chocolate, nestling at home with friends, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food and acknowledging that this too (i.e. winter) shall pass.

While the Danes invented it, U.S. influencers have taken it to the max and there are currently 5.4 M #hygge hashtags on you know where, if you’re in the mood for a mindless/inspirational scroll (no judgement here).

Winter woes

If you’re feeling sad, with a small “s”, or SAD as in Seasonal Adjustment Disorder, this season, take action. Talk to your primary care provider if you think your symptoms are getting worse. Then stick a picture on your fridge of spring flowers, and remind yourself that the daffodils will return.

In the meantime, consider a light box, make a (cheery) winter playlist (Frank Sinatra singing “That’s Life” is a good start on a wintry day), bundle up warm, take regular bracing walks around the neighborhood to boost serotonin, ask friends over for supper, add Vitamin D rich foods to your grocery list, pile on more quilts and comforters to sofas and beds, and do what they do in Amsterdam – light candles at breakfast.