Feeling SAD? You're Not the Only One with Winter Blues

By Nicole Bode on January 11, 2011 9:54am 

A man walks through the snow in Manhattan's East Village December 27, 2010 in New York City.
A man walks through the snow in Manhattan's East Village December 27, 2010 in New York City.
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

By Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Senior Editor

MANHATTAN — Ever since the weather turned cold, I hate getting out of bed in the morning. I avoid spending any more time outside than I have to, and I crave unhealthy amounts of bread, chocolate and sleep.

I know I’m not the only one these days doing battle against the winter blahs. But I’ve heard so many people blaming their symptoms on Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, I wondered if my complaints were anything to worry about.

As it turns out, my winter blues are mild in the grand scheme of seasonal depression, according to an online questionnaire that helps people evaluate their symptoms. It’s a confidential self-assessment survey offered by the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics, led by Columbia University psychiatry professor Michael Terman.

"This is not a method for self-diagnosis, but it can help you assess the severity and timing of certain symptoms of depression," the survey warns, then goes on to ask users whether they’ve had recurrent "trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or sleeping too much," or had "significant weight gain or loss" unrelated to dieting.

The survey also asks more serious questions, asking users if they’ve ever spent every day for a two-week stint "thinking a lot about death or that you would be better off dead."

The survey ends with a personalized report about how severe the user’s symptoms appear to be. In my case, the survey said I "did not experience a clinically significant depression in the past year," but that if I started to worry about any symptoms interfering with my daily activities, I could "consult with a psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional."

It’s a helpful resource for a clinical definition that can be hard to pin down.

"Strictly speaking, SAD is defined as clinically significant depression that almost always occurs in late fall and winter, and almost never in the opposite season," Terman explained.

According to Terman, SAD affects an estimated 5 percent of the population in the US, while an estimated 15 percent of the population experience some kind of "winter doldrums."

But the severity of symptoms vary widely, from increased sluggishness and weight gain of between 10 – 30 pounds during the winter to crippling depression and lack of interest in family or work, Terman said. SAD also kicks in at different times for different people, showing up most dramatically during January and February and virtually disappearing by May, Terman said.

Aside from antidepressants and psychological counseling, there are two main treatments for SAD: light treatments and negative ion treatments, Terman said.

The light treatments rely on full-spectrum lamps to supplement the daylight that goes missing during the winter months, while the negative ion treatments churn out the air particles that get stripped out by heaters.

They both involve purchasing machines to use at home on a daily basis — ranging from $165 - $215 — but Terman gave one huge caveat: don’t try this at home unless you’ve consulted with a professional.

"If … you may be suffering from Major Depressive Disorder, you should not self-treat your SAD. There are too many ways to do it wrong and make things worse," he said.

For now, I’ll stick with my Vitamin D supplement, moderate amounts of chocolate, and walks in the sun to try to hang in there until the spring.

That is, unless someone’s got a spare room in a Carribbean villa up for grabs?

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