Is it the Winter Blues or S.A.D.? How to cope with Cabin Fever

Every year as fall begins to turn to winter, I notice the distinctive change in the amount of daylight we experience. Especially this year. It’s said that the third week in January is the worst (which happens to be this week).

Many of us leave in the dark and come home in the dark. And it seems to impact our mood. We feel more tired, less patient, and probably not as nice as we should be at home or at work.

I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time apologizing to those around me for my short fuse. And to think that we have about three months left of winter at the least, is kind of disheartening. I kind of start feeling like Jack Nicholson in the movie “The Shining.”

I suspect many of us feel that way with the change of the seasons. But for some, this time of year leads to more serious symptoms. Mental health professionals even have a term for this syndrome-Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. It’s also commonly known as the Winter Blues.

The professionals tell us that when the symptoms get serious enough to affect your life, you may be afflicted with SAD. People with SAD tend to experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Desire to sleep more
  • Overeating
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Feeling anxious
  • Being unusually irritable
  • Feeling a lack of energy
  • Headaches
  • Craving of sweets
  • Loss of desire for physical activity
  • Weight gain

If you think this sounds like depression, you are right. SAD is a form of depression, but it is caused by the reduction of daylight during the winter months. And even if you are inside in artificial light most of the day, you can still suffer from a lack of daylight. Mental health professionals diagnose a person as having SAD if they have these symptoms for two consecutive winters, and do not have the symptoms in the spring and summer.

SAD tends to be more common among women and young people. Doctors think there may be a connection between SAD and lower serotonin levels, which in more serious cases can result in clinical depression.

Add this to an already overwhelmed care-giver and you really begin to feel the pressure.

What To Do?

First, if you think you or someone in your family is experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder, you may want to consult your family physician or mental health provider. Your health professional will want to ask a number of questions to identify SAD and rule out other causes of the symptoms.

Your physician may want you to try using a light box, which tends to have beneficial effects on about 75% of SAD patients. Spending 15-120 minutes per day in front of the light box can make a big difference.

I know for myself, a simple tanning salon during the Winter months can help you cope.

Antidepressant drug therapy may be prescribed by your doctor if serotonin levels are really low. Make sure if you take antidepressants that you follow your doctor’s instructions explicitly to be safe.

Psychotherapy may also help. Sometimes talking with a counselor or social worker can help you focus on changing behaviors that contribute to SAD. Even if it’s just a friend or a neighbor, talking it out can help. I occasionally run to my neighbor Lorries for a much-needed break.

I’ve heard others talk of “taking a mini vacation” during each day or on more stressful days. This doesn’t necessarily mean actually getting on an airplane and going to a deserted island (like I sometimes wish I could), but rather taking time to find inner peace through prayer, journaling, reading, or thinking of special memories and vacations I have taken in the past.

Daily exercise outdoors is one inexpensive way of self treating SAD. The fresh air, exposure to daylight and the endorphins you release through exercise can have a major positive effect on SAD sufferers. A 30-60 minute daily regimen has many positive health effects. I recently joined a gym (in September) and make myself get up and go because I’m noticing it really helps during this time of year.

Paying attention to what’s going on with the behavior of your family members or within you, can help you recognize the symptoms and effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. When you see symptoms like these that cause you concern, get help for yourself or your loved one – it’s crucial to your well-being.

About Sue Salach

Sue has a Master's degree in Gerontology and has worked with the elderly and their families for over 30 years and is the Author of "Along Comes Grandpa", a caregiving resource guide, and the novel "If I Walked in Her Shoes". As an ElderCare Expert and Keynote Speaker, Sue employs her comprehensive experience and passion, to educate and promote self-care values to family caregivers and the community at large.
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2 Responses to Is it the Winter Blues or S.A.D.? How to cope with Cabin Fever

  1. Nurse Tim of the Yukon says:

    Hi, this is Alaskan Winter number 30 for me. I both live and work in the Arctic. Long nights, way below zero temperatures, and a tough life. I am originally a beach bum from southern California. I don’t use a “happy light”, don’t take SSRI’s, and I still thrive amidst adversity. Challenges? Many. So what, life is not easy.

    So, how come I never get this “cabin fever”, anyway?

    Simple. I get out and stay active every day, eat right, and praise my Father in heaven continuously, no matter what the circumstances; That’s the secret. Crazy, huh 🙂


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