Combating the Winter Blues & Seasonal Affective Disorder
With the change of seasons comes a shift of moods and feelings — the days grow shorter, the darkness lasts a little longer, the weather grows cooler and sometimes rainier, and while this sometimes allows for us to slow down our daily routines and embrace what can be felt as the ‘coziness’ of the transition from fall to winter with hot cocoa, snow days, and holiday festivities, some can feel a negative impact on their mental health.
The ‘winter blues’ can best be described as a sadness or fatigue felt most often during the winter months, when it is dark and coolest out. This is not uncommon as our minds adapt to less sunshine, less daylight, and a shift of weather. But when the winter blues start to affect your day-to-day function and your ability to complete tasks, it instead is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — a clinical term for a type of recurrent major depressive disorder that occurs primarily in the winter (or autumn) time and remitting by the spring/summer time.
There is no known cause for SAD but there is some evidence pointing to a change in melatonin production (usually increased) vs a decrease in serotonin production and also the disruption that can happen to a person’s circadian rhythm. Seasonal affective disorder sometimes develops in a person’s early 20’s but can affect children and teens alike.
Here are some symptoms parents and caregivers should be on the lookout for:
- Changes in mood — you may notice your child becoming more irritable, sad, or feeling more discouraged than usual. This may look like more frequent crying, or even more angry outbursts.
- Changes in appetite — diet changes such as eating too little, or too much, can occur with SAD; oftentimes you’ll find your child or teenager wanting to focus on more sugary or ‘comforting’ foods, sometimes leading them to overeating and weight gain.
- Lower energy/more fatigue — your child may show signs of having a harder time completing tasks, or moving more slowly to do so, while also wanting to avoid doing some things altogether.
- Changes in sleep — this can look like your child not wanting to get up in the mornings as easily, or complaining more of feeling tired despite having slept through the night.
As a parent, you may be experiencing some of these symptoms yourself, and when your own mental health is suffering, it can be hard to notice changes in your child’s moods or know how to best help them.
Here is a list of achievable, evidence-based, recommendations to combat yours and your child’s winter blues:
- Light exposure or phototherapy — the number one treatment for winter blue’s or SAD is increasing your exposure to daylight as much as possible!
– Spend as much time outside during the daytime hours as possible; turn your child’s playtime into an outdoor walk or scavenger hunt, play an enticing game of jumping in the rain puddles, or encouraging your teen to walk with a neighbor around the block!
– Even if it’s cloudy, it still helps!
– Changing lightbulbs to ‘full-spectrum’ or ‘daylight’ bulbs to give the home more of a ‘sunny feel’.
– Opening all window shades/blinds from sunrise to sunset.
– Try a ‘dawn simulator’ alarm clock such as the Hatch.
– Try daily phototherapy using a light box that provides an exposure of 10,000 lux of light; best used within the first hour of waking up. Using for 20-30 minutes at a time has been shown to elevate moods and alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Here is an example of a light box.
- Exercising regularly (especially helpful if exercising outside)!
- Promoting a healthy diet; encouraging more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Encourage social plans — push your kiddos to engage with their friends, make play dates, and social plans that embrace the darker evenings whether it’s movie nights, ice skating, or simply a cookie bake-off!
- And when possible, planning a mid-winter vacation to somewhere sunnier can always help!
It can be easy to get caught up in the bustle of the holiday season and feel that changes in attitudes around winter are ‘normal,’ but pay attention to your own feelings, your child’s moods, and take the winter blues seriously. With some simple changes, you can find ways to make the winter season fun, family-filled, and a time of togetherness with seasonal traditions!
If at any point though, you feel like your child or teenager is struggling beyond what the above recommendations are helping with, please don’t hesitate to reach out to their primary care provider.