Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

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Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

Do You Just Have The Winter Blues or Could It Be SAD?

Do You Just Have The Winter Blues or Could It Be SAD? 

This is a difficult time of year for many people, particularly those of us who live in the northern part of the country and get far less sunlight than we do in the summer.  Even on a sunny day, the cold keeps us inside a lot more of the time.

It could be that you’re just in a low mood for any number of reasons.  Monitor it.  If it goes in and out, up and down, it’s probably not that big a deal – just a normal part of mood cycles we all feel over time.

But if you find that you’re sleeping a lot more, have significantly low energy, have a consistent and persistent low mood, get agitated, or the reverse – sluggish, have an onset or increase in feelings of of low self-esteem, and these symptoms seem to go away when the weather gets better, you may be one of a not insignificant number of people who suffer from SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, a coin termed by a psychiatrist, Dr. Norman Rosenthal, in 1984.

Depending on the study you read, you’ll learn that somewhere between 6%-12% of Americans suffer from this disorder.  Additional symptoms include change in appetite, weight gain, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and more.

If one of your symptoms is thoughts of death or suicide, get professional help immediately.

So what causes this disorder?  The answer is not definitive, and there are several theories that are still being studied.  The change in the amount of natural light we’re exposed plays a big part.  The loss of sunlight can trigger changes in two hormones circulating in the brain:  melatonin and serotonin.  Melatonin supplements are sometimes used at night as a sleep aid.  The loss of light may increase the amount of melatonin in your brain and contributes to the feelings of low energy, sluggishness, those “blues.”  Serotonin is affected by loss of sunlight the opposite way – less serotonin is produced with less light, and that can affect your mood, appetite, and sleep.

Our natural circadian rhythms (our body’s internal clock) can also be affected by the amount of light we’re exposed to during different times of the year.  Hence the use of the term “seasonal” in SAD.

So how do we beat this?  Or at least reduce the severity.  One is by understanding it (do a little research of your own on the subject); another is by taking steps to counteract what happens when the light diminishes for several months.  Some people who understand it and recognize its onset year after year, choose to simply tough it out and wait for spring.

If it’s too severe or you’d rather make an effort to boost your mood, you could try some of the following:  get out in the morning light.  If it’s too nasty or just too cold, get yourself a full-spectrum lightbox, and follow the instructions on its use.  For most people, a half hour a day is sufficient.  If you’re lucky enough to be able to get away for a week or two to a sunnier clime, by all means, do it!  Plan some social activities with friends or family, and don’t bail on them.  Just being with other people can help lift your mood.  Get out a little more.  Exercise a little more.

If that doesn’t do it, consider talk therapy.  There may be underlying issues that exacerbate the symptoms that will occur during the late fall and winter months that will be helped by talking to a professional.  As a last resort, antidepressant medications could be indicated, but only by diagnosis by a psychiatrist (not your family doctor), and understand that there’s no easy fix that simply taking a pill will take care of.  People want magic, but in mood disorders, mild or severe (SAD is mild and usually temporary), there is no magic.

And remember, there’s always spring.  It may not feel like it’s just around the corner, but it will come, and most people will be relieved of the winter blues.

Winter is on my head but eternal spring is in my heart

~ Victor Hugo

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