Nov 6, 2023 - Health

Axios Finish Line: SAD or winter blues: How to deal with shorter days

Illustration of a brain wearing a winter hat sitting on a park bench under a tree with leaves falling

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

As the days get shorter, you could start feeling the winter blues — or worse.

Why it matters: Although feeling some sadness during the darker months is normal, the American Psychiatric Association says 5% of U.S. adults deal with something more serious: seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression.

What's happening: A reduction in light exposure can change the balance of brain chemicals like serotonin (which can affect mood) and melatonin (important for sleep), and disrupt the body's circadian rhythm.

According to a recent APA poll, two-thirds of adults say they notice at least one of these behavioral changes when the season shifts to winter: They sleep more, feel fatigued and/or feel depressed.

The difference between having "just winter blues" and SAD is "the pervasiveness of feeling sad or depressed pretty much all the time, having loss of interest in things that used to give you pleasure," APA president Petros Levounis tells Axios.

  • It could be SAD if you're sleeping or eating too much or too little, having difficulty concentrating or having thoughts of death. There's "a lot of overlap with what we find for major depressive order," he says.

Levounis recommends getting a diagnosis from a doctor for SAD "because there may be something else that's going on" that would require different treatment.

The "most important thing" to pay attention to during the fall and winter is sleep, Levounis says.

  • Mood disorders can lead to sleep loss, and the inverse is also true: Even a single sleepless night can interfere with the brain's ability to regulate emotions.
  • Waking up and going to bed at around the same time — even on weekends — is an important part of good sleep hygiene, Levounis says.

Going for walks in nature can also alleviate the winter blues, Levounis says.

  • They're especially helpful for people who commute in the dark and otherwise wouldn't get exposed to as much body clock-regulating sunlight.
  • Bonus points for anyone who can walk among trees. Studies show strolling in the park is particularly good for your mental health, perhaps because we've been socialized to associate nature with calmness, says Levounis, who's writing a book about nature therapy. See also: forest bathing.
  • And Levounis recommends bringing trees inside, too — houseplants can boost your mood.

Read more: Mental health advice that's not "exercise"

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

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