“My soul wasn’t made for winter.” This is usually how I try to describe my relationship to this season, and sometimes I follow it up with the fact that my mom was born in Brazil, so I have hot blood that craves heat. I tend to not really feel like myself in the wintertime. And I’m not alone.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than the average case of the “winter blues” and it usually sets in the late-fall or early-winter. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms may differ, but one usually feels depressed most of the day, nearly every day. You can lose interest in activities you once enjoyed, have low energy, or problems with sleeping. You can feel sluggish or agitated, have difficulty concentrating, and experience changes in your appetite or weight. In more severe cases, people experience a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt. And have frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

"For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like 'hibernating')"

Dr. Paul Hammerness, MD is the Chair of Psychiatric Services at Southcoast Health. WBSM reached out to him to get a sense of how we can combat the winter blues/seasonal affective disorder after a year that has been especially tough for most of us, especially taking a toll on our ability to physically connect with others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Overall, I recommend people focus on the basics,” said Dr. Hammerness. “Maintaining a good sleep schedule, eating well, avoiding substances, and trying to find some way of getting exercise like going out for a walk.”

Dr. Hammerness explains that viewing winter as an inherently bad thing isn’t how some other cultures approach this cold season. “Some regions of the world are better at embracing, not fighting winter, taking the ‘there is no such thing as bad weather just bad (not enough layers) clothing’ mentality. Think about winter as a beautiful time, with different landscapes and ‘refreshing’ cold.”

A positive mindset and behavior are crucial for establishing good mental health. “Often the first step to feeling better is to force yourself to literally get up and move. Positive emotions and thoughts can follow.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very serious concern and Dr. Hammerness recommends that those who are affected by it take it seriously if it is impacting your ability to function. "If it impacts your ability to sleep, eat, and work, or if it includes ideas of suicide, reach out to your family, or to your primary care, or to local services or hotlines. Treatment can include therapy, medication, vitamin D, and light therapy.”

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