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Shedding Some Light on a Sad Subject

by Nancy Stek, Associate Director, New Jersey Lawyers Assistance Program

This winter has been a difficult one when it comes to weather. Record-breaking snowfall amounts have many people grappling with how to handle the “winter blues”. Some are considering moving to warmer climates or, at the very least, taking a last minute vacation to a sunnier location. I, on the other hand, am excited to pack up my skis and head to the slopes for some fun and recreation. But there is one aspect of the “winter blues” that I share with those looking to catch the next jet south: the limited amount of daylight during the winter season.

The “winter blues” has a more clinical name: Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Aptly named, it is a type of depression that affects some people during the winter months, the time of year when the amount of daylight available is shortened. The winter solstice, typically around the 21 of December, marks the “shortest day of the year.” Daylight hours throughout the fall diminish by minutes per day and people with SAD find themselves on a downward mood slope as daylight disappears.

Although barely perceptible on a day to day basis, this disappearing light causes the appearance of otherwise unseen symptoms for those with SAD. These symptoms appear and disappear at the same time each year. They include feelings of sadness, irritability, moodiness, anxiety, increased eating and a craving for carbohydrates, weight gain and sleeping longer than usual. These changes in mood are thought to be related to exposure to daylight. Genetics, age and individual body chemistry also play a role.

We all have an internal biological clock that tells us when to be awake and when to sleep. Reduced sunlight hours in the fall and winter may disrupt this internal mechanism, our circadian rhythm, as well as cause a drop in the brain’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects our mood and sense of well-being. There is also a natural hormone called melatonin that plays a role in mood and sleep patterns. The change in light can disrupt these levels and contribute to SAD and the symptoms related to sleeping referred to earlier. A specific gene mutation has also been identified, lending credence to the theory that there are genetic risk-factors in families that also contribute to SAD’s development in some individuals.

“Winter blues” sufferers can often find relief through exercise and increased outdoor activity, assuming you are not snowed in. Light therapy treatments are also effective as is counseling and medications for those more seriously impacted. Preparing in advance is always wise. Special light bulbs can be purchased and ready to go in early fall. Planning a vacation in mid-winter can provide a welcome break. I guess moving closer to the equator is an option but probably not a terribly practical one for most. Or take up a winter sport, like snowboarding, ice skating or snowmobiling and turn adversity to opportunity: SAD to glad. That’s my plan. And I’m sticking to it.

If a personal problem is interfering, please contact the Missouri Lawyers' Assistance Program at 1-800-688-7859 for free, confidential assistance.