As winter drags into late January, cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), commonly known as the “winter blues,” have reached record highs across many northern states. With freezing temperatures, short days, and weeks of clouds and snow stretching on, mental health experts say this may be a uniquely difficult winter for those prone to seasonal depression.
What is Causing the Rise in SAD This Year?
According to Dr. Melinda Jackson, a psychologist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, several factors are driving SAD rates higher this winter:
- Persistent Cold Weather: Frigid temperatures have locked in across the Midwest, Northeast and Northern Plains since November. Areas like Minnesota, the Dakotas, and interior New England have seen one of their coldest winters on record. Short days and lack of sunlight alone can trigger SAD for some, but the constant cold keeps people stuck inside even more.
- Impact of the Pandemic: Rates of anxiety and depression already escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those pre-existing mental health issues make people more vulnerable to seasonal shifts. On top of that, pandemic fatigue has left many drained of their ability to cope.
- Stresses of Inflation/Recession Fears: Money worries and fears about an economic downtown only compound the winter’s emotional weight.
“This year in particular we have a perfect storm of factors that can negatively impact people’s mood and energy,” said Dr. Jackson.
Who is Most at Risk for SAD Currently?
While anyone can develop seasonal depression, data shows certain groups have proven especially vulnerable this year:
- Young adults and college students
- Midwesterners used to more moderate winters
- Parents helping kids handle remote learning again
- Frontline workers facing constant stress and pressure
Additionally, those with a history of anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder face amplified SAD symptoms. Without proper treatment, they can spiral into crisis.
“People who already struggle during the warmer months are really in the danger zone when that seasonal component is added,” said Sue Stevenson, a therapist at the Center for Family Medicine in Sioux Falls, SD. “The key is getting ahead of those symptoms early before they become severe or life-threatening.”
Warning Signs of Severe Seasonal Affective Disorder
Many people write off the winter blues as normal, inevitable fatigue caused by winter’s gloom. But experts caution SAD can become serious if not addressed. Some warning signs your seasonal depression has become severe include:
- Excessive oversleeping and difficulty waking up
- Craving sugary or starchy comfort foods
- Complete withdrawal from social activities you once enjoyed
- Loss of interest in hobbies or passions
- Hopelessness about the future
- Suicidal thoughts
“If your low winter mood only seems to deepen or you find yourself coping through substance abuse, that’s a red flag to seek help without delay,” advised Dr. Sue Varma, a New York-based psychiatrist.
Steps to Manage and Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you feel yourself struggling with the winter blues, take proactive steps to lift your mood and energy levels:
- Increase Light Exposure: Use a therapy lightbox providing up to 10,000 lux brightness for 30 minutes each morning. Also find ways to simply get outdoors for fresh air and natural light as much as possible throughout the week.
- Exercise Regularly: Just 30 minutes of cardio exercise like walking releases feel-good endorphins while reducing cortisol and adrenaline spikes caused by SAD-related anxiety.
- Adjust Your Diet: Reduce refined carbs and sugar that lead to energy crashes. Instead emphasize mood-lifting nutrients like omega-3s from fatty fish, leafy greens, nuts and avocados.
- Enrich Your Social Connections: Isolation and disconnection worsen seasonal depression for many. Though it’s tempting to hibernate all winter, regularly video chat with supportive friends or join virtual events/classes to stay engaged.
- Try Supplements: Ask your doctor about supplements that can lessen SAD symptoms like vitamin B complex, vitamin D, St. John’s wort or SAMe (S-Adenosylmethionine).
- Get a Sunrise Alarm Clock: Waking up to natural sunrise lighting helps regulate melatonin and your sleep-wake cycle disrupted by seasonal shifts.
- See a Professional: For moderate to severe seasonal depression, consult your physician or a mental health professional. In some cases medications, therapy and other interventions can help regain your mental wellbeing.
Outlook for SAD Rates as Winter Progresses
Unfortunately as February and March arrive, experts believe SAD diagnoses will continue trending higher before relief comes. While the exact peak remains hard to forecast, Dr. Varma projects between 28-32% of Americans may experience clinically significant seasonal depression before this winter concludes.
However both medical and mental health providers have ramped up outreach and resources available to the public. Many therapists are also offering discounted counseling for those with seasonal depression given this crisis situation.
As spring finally nears and temperatures start warming, SAD rates should taper off. But experts worry about emotional aftermath that could linger for some even as sunny days return.
“We need comprehensive long-term support systems in place to fully bring people out of that winter fog,” Stevenson said. “Otherwise the residual effects could persist right into summer for the vulnerable without that help.”
|Total SAD cases
|Using light therapy
|Planning summer vacations
Only time will tell how severe this season ultimately becomes for Americans’ collective mental health. But the public health agencies remain committed to providing resources and compassionate care to anyone struggling.
We all must support friends, family and community members through the last weeks of winter ahead. Then hopefully brighter spring days unlock renewed perspective and optimism soon.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.