Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) & the Dead of Winter

Over the years I’ve noticed there are three or four weeks every winter when people seem to feel extraordinarily low, and we are now in the midst of them.

During the last couple weeks of January, folks always start to come into my office with a very consistent set of complaints. “Oh, I feel so tired!” “I just don’t have any energy.” “No motivation to do anything.” “I’m not sleeping through the night anymore.” Etc.

This set of symptoms can be alarming!

Winter Prairie HouseWe wonder if we’re clinically depressed…or if we have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Do we need medication? Should we see our doctor? We might become afraid that our symptoms will get worse or become permanent. We wonder just how serious this might be.

I find it’s helpful for folks to know that this sort of “late January discomfort” is a normal experience.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that what is happening during these three or four weeks is simply our bodies responding naturally to cues in our environment. The short days cue our bodies to slow down and do less. Think about how important this would have been to humanity many years ago, before technology…

To be busy in the dead of winter 150 years ago would have been treacherous

Venturing out to get things done when the snow is blowing and the temperatures are bottoming out could have been a matter of life or death.

Days are shortest in the end of December, and our Earth responds a month later with some of the coldest temperatures of the year. It only makes sense that our bodies respond concurrently by trying to force us to slow down. We experience difficulty sleeping though the night and feel like napping during the day. If we could follow that prompting, we would end up in a sort of semi-hibernation where we sleep in broken segments of time around the clock, instead of just at night.

Winter Night Can Be BrightImagine with me life on the prairie in the winter. A person could go to bed and wake up four or so hours later in the middle of the night. They could get up in a drowsy stupor and sit in a chair for a while. They might pray or think. Or light a candle. When they looked outside, it would seem bright.

We all know how dark the days of winter can be, but to look out in the middle of the night, when the moon glows on the shiny white landscape, gives a sense of wonder at how bright it can be.

After a while that prairie person would go back to bed and sleep for some more hours. They might get up in the late morning only to spend a few hours sleeping again in the afternoon. Day after day, time would go by, and the prairie person would be safe, mostly indoors, until winter relented and spring approached.

But we live in modern society with schedules and commitments

We have heated vehicles to keep us moving. We are no longer living in a way where the weather often stops us from engaging in our normal daily activities. So every year, around this time, we find ourselves experiencing the tension between our modern life’s commitments and our biological desire to take a cue from nature and slow down and become unproductive for a short season. This makes us feel tired and irritable. We don’t feel like being productive.

The good news is this is not only predictable, it is temporary. If we can accept the way we feel during these three or four weeks each year, we can cope and manage through it! While most of us cannot give up our busy schedule, here are some simple things we can do to get ourselves through the dead of winter:

  • Get together with friends. Plan a get together that will allow you to enjoy lively conversation and the company of others.
  • Swim. Swimming at a local fitness club, hotel, or even water-park can be a great way to get us out of winter for a while.
  • See more movies. Take advantage of all the great films that come out this time of year and escape for a couple of hours at a time.
  • Plan a vacation. The act of searching for a springtime vacation has a way of taking our mind away from our day-to-day and providing us an avenue for escape.
  • Go out later than usual. Going out for late drinks or dinner in the dead of winter can be a wonderful experience. There is something exciting about going out into the dark, cold night only to find yourself entering a warm, lit, lively environment where other people are enjoying themselves, too.
  • Read more. Take advantage of the desire to stay inside by reading those books that have stacked up throughout the rest of the year.
  • Create. Utilize the natural introspection that comes with feeling down to get the creative juices flowing. Writing, painting, drawing, and making music can all be enhanced during this time of year.
  • Sleep more. That’s self-explanatory.

It doesn’t matter how you choose to cope. What is important is to know that the way we each feel this time of year is predictable and natural. Resist the urge to believe there is something horribly wrong with you. See this time for what it is, and find a way to have some fun. Do things that bring you joy! Before you know it, these weeks will have passed and you will have all the energy you need to once again become productive. And you’ll be too busy to slow down and enjoy yourself…until next year at this time.

Dave ThornsenDave Thornsen, PsyD, Licensed Psychologist Dr. Dave Thornsen is a licensed psychologist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He works individually with adult men and women and also specializes in marriage counseling. Dave received his doctorate degree in psychology in 2002 from Wheaton College. He has practiced in Grand Rapids ever since. Dave is able to participate with most insurances. Learn more…

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