Counseling Center

The winter blues

What’s Your Take on Seattle’s Obsession with the Winter Blues? A Help or A Hindrance?

Here in the Great Northwest, our perpetually grey skies through Fall, Winter, and Spring are legendary. Toughing out long stretches of dreary days often becomes part of the Seattlite identity, even a point of pride for some. So, does that mean most of us are doomed to experience the Winter Blues, or its more severe cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), at some time in our lives? Maybe; maybe not.

Research seems to suggest that cloud cover can exacerbate the symptoms of Winter Blues/SAD, but is not the cause. Current evidence points to longer nights being the culprit. That means that our fellow Washingtonians on the sunnier side of the mountains may have nearly the same vulnerability that we have here; whereas people living nearer to the equator, where the length of the night stays more constant throughout the year, are much less likely to experience this seasonal mood variation. For fun, you can check out Seattle’s sunrise and sunset times here.

We all have a biological clock (a.k.a. circadian rhythm) which responds to light, and helps our bodies know when to be asleep and when to be awake. For some of us, however, that biological clock responds quite a bit differently in the Winter when the sun goes down early and rises late. While exact mechanisms are unknown, this seems to be related to how the hormone melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin work in our bodies in response to these light cues. This relationship with sleep versus wakefulness seems to be why the classic symptoms of Winter Blues involve that sluggish, fatigued feeling. (If you’re curious about your own personal sleep/wake timing, you can take an assessment here.

Whether or not a person develops the Winter Blues seems to depend on two things – distance from the equator and genetics. An inherited predisposition to this seasonal pattern may determine who is vulnerable to developing it, and whether the condition actually appears may depend on if that genetically-vulnerable person spends their time in Acapulco or Alaska. Prevalence rates suggest that inhabitants of Florida may have less than a 2 % chance of experiencing SAD, whereas in Seattle and North the range seems to be about 10% (or up to 30% if including the milder Winter Blues).

Seattle’s Winter-time reputation for having dark days and darker nights mean many locals are aware of SAD and its constellation of symptoms (like increased sadness or irritability, fatigue, increased sleep duration, difficulty waking, feelings of apathy, increased appetite – possibly particularly for carbs, decreased interest in socializing or activities, among others). This high level of awareness has a great advantage; it means many people don’t hesitate to explore treatment options like light box therapy, medication, talk therapy, or other remedies (go to the bottom of this article for tips on possible remedies) when they notice their mood taking a dip when the weather turns. The quickness with which much of our population identifies with the Winter Blues and seeks help implies that the stigma for this condition is relatively low – which is something worth celebrating.

But, could there be a downside to all the focus on the Seattle grey? If banter in hallways and elevators were the measure of SAD prevalence, it might appear that we all have it. And while the age-old tradition of commiserating over the weather certainly has its place, it would seem that developing the impression that ‘everyone has it here’ may lead us to over-identify with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The potential risk of this is that many may mistakenly self-diagnose any type of low mood as Winter Blues, and miss signs of other forms of distress (like mounting pressure related to academics, relationship conflict, etc.). Or, in some cases, the stigma that remains around other conditions like “regular” depression, may lead people to seek an treatment for the less stigmatized seasonal form of the disorder, which may be inadequate. For example, they may seek only light therapy when they may need more extensive consultation with a mental health professional.

Wouldn’t it be great if Seattle were a place where there were no stigma attached to any type of psychological or emotional distress? People could feel free to just notice their feelings and circumstances, consult with a professional, and get just what they need. Until stigma is eliminated, though, it may be that the Winter Blues offers many Seattleites a more comfortable explanation for their symptoms; sometimes that explanation may be spot-on and sometimes not. What do YOU think? Does self-applying this label do more harm by leaving other issues unaddressed or getting people inadequate treatment, or does it do more good because it’s a comfortable way for people to begin considering good self-care and consultation with a medical or mental health provider?

What can be done to help the Winter Blues:

  • Be sure to consult with a medical professional, sometimes symptoms of other types of health problems can mimic SAD/Winter Blues.
  • Increase exposure to light; this can include outdoor light even when it’s overcast. Some research suggests that increased light exposure before 10 am is particularly helpful.
  • Take regular (ideally daily) walks outdoors, if possible.
  • Try to stick to a daily routine, particularly when it comes to sleep habits.
  • Set a timer to turn a light on early in your bedroom, or try a dawn simulator for a more gradual artificial dawn.
  • Increase aerobic exercise, particularly under bright lighting conditions.
  • If possible, take opportunities to travel south during the winter season.
  • Take steps to manage your stress.
  • Consider counseling to help with self-esteem issues and stress management.
  • Consider counseling or medication to manage other forms of depression.
  • Try to avoid using alcohol and/or caffeine to impact your sleep/wake cycle; these can disrupt the quality of sleep and lead to further problems.
  • Remember that naps exceeding 20-30 minutes can disrupt nighttime sleep, so try to avoid long naps when possible.

Treatments for SAD:

  • As stated above, consult with a medical provider to rule out other possible causes for symptoms.
  • Light therapy is one of the most common and effective treatments for SAD. It involves using a light box which provides much higher intensity light than is available in typical household or office lighting. Most people find that 30 minutes to 2 hours of bright light exposure daily, usually in the morning, leads to improved symptoms in less than a week.
  • Some people benefit from using melatonin, but only if taken at the proper time of day (not necessarily at bedtime). Consult with a sleep specialist for more information.
  • Some people also find some benefit with using antidepressant medications.
  • Many find that talking to a counselor helps them sort through ways to manage their mood.

Resources:

Light Therapy is a free service provided by: UW Counseling Center (206-543-1240) or, Hall Health (206-543-5030)

Medication Consultation: Hall Health: Your personal physician, or, contact the Counseling Center for assistance with additional referral resources