Winter Blues: The Psychology of Shorter Days
By Lynn Blamires Content Writer for My Local Utah | Healthy Utah
The days start getting shorter on the first day of summer, but it takes about six weeks to notice a difference. During the months of July and August the days are the warmest of the year and tend to distract us from noticing a change. With the coming of September and cooler days, the changes are more notable.
Fall is a beautiful time of year and compared to the month of May, September is much calmer and less volatile. For many, this is the best time of the year. However, as the saying goes, “It is the calm before the storm,” and people begin to think about the days getting shorter. The change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time makes the change more dramatic.
As the pendulum swings to the other side of the spectrum, I have noticed an almost subconscious need for light. Christmas lights begin appearing earlier in November every year now. With companies installing light systems on homes permanently, it only takes a flip of a switch to usher in the season.
In another place on this website, you will see an article about, “Christmas lights and where to find them.” I noticed a significant increase in the size and number of displays available to visit.
This year they are more dazzling and brilliant than ever. We have seen displays at individual homes where the lights are synchronized to music, now places like Thanksgiving Point, where the gardens are literally covered with acres of lights. They are also synchronized to music and with the size of the display – you are immersed in the show. The spectacle of lights dance, ripple and roll across the grounds in a mesmerizing fashion. Family traditions are developing that include walking and driving through these major luminary productions all along the Wasatch Front.
Even Halloween Lights
Now we are seeing Halloween light displays going up in late September and they are getting bigger. We are being drawn to these lights like the proverbial moths of summer as the days are getting shorter.
As I write this, it is the longest night of the year. However, we are sustaining ourselves with parties, Christmas movies, shopping, popping open the windows on Advent calendars, and giving gifts. We can handle the dark days of December because we are busy celebrating.
When Christmas is over, we don’t stop because we are gearing up for New Year’s Eve where we party into the night so heartily that we miss the morning of the first day of the New Year.
The Letdown After the Holidays
I can remember lying on the couch with a full stomach watching bowl games with the light of day fading quickly thinking that it was all over. The next day it would be back to school with its litany of studying and deadlines. It was an act of facing the reality of the winter doldrums.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
What I have learned since those days is that what I was feeling is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In an article that appeared in Medical News Today (August 12, 2019), Adam Felman wrote, “SAD is now more commonly known as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. It is a type of depression that tends to affect people who live in countries farther from the equator. It is most common during the winter months and tends to resolve in springtime.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that this condition might occur when reduced exposure to sunlight triggers a chemical imbalance in the brain. “Seasonal changes in sunlight affect the circadian rhythms that regulate a person’s sense of time. Some people consider this to be their “internal biological clock,” and disruption to the circadian rhythm can significantly disrupt mood.”
SAD appears to affect women more than men and younger people more than older people. It is also more common in people who live farther north of the equator, as winter further reduces the hours of daylight in these locations. I can imagine that living so far north that when the sun peeks over the horizon for only a few minutes, would have an effect on people.
Symptoms of SAD
The signs and symptoms of SAD tend to include –
- anxious feelings that are out of proportion with their cause
- feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- stress and irritability
- difficulties in making decisions
- reduced concentration
- consistent low mood
- reduced libido
- restless activity, such as pacing
- crying, often with no apparent trigger
- feelings of fatigue, even after a full night’s sleep
- sleeping for too long
- increased appetite
- social withdrawal and a reduced interest in activities that once provided pleasure
- difficulty concentrating
- overeating and possible weight gain
- suicidal ideation
This is a comprehensive list of symptoms that a person with SAD might have and is not meant to diagnose the condition, but it might guide a person who identifies with some of these symptoms to seek help.
Symptoms are usually mild as autumn advances and the hours of daylight start to decline. The severity, characteristics, and patterns of SAD can vary considerably from person to person.
Hope for SAD People
If you identify with these symptoms and have experienced the seasonality of SAD, here are some things that might be helpful –
- Shift Focus (change negatives into positives). When we’re depressed it’s easy to forget the people in our lives and how we might affect them. One of the best ways to combat depression is by shifting focus from ourselves to others. Finding ways to serve others lifts all involved.
- Plan ahead. If you feel the weight and stress of too many obligations, lighten the load where you can. Shop at “off” times or take advantage of the shop-online and drive-thru pick-up many stores have established during COVID. As much as possible, be selective about how you spend your time.
- Attitude tweak. Work on tweaking your attitude from negative toward positive and self-centered toward more compassionate, which will help lift a low mood. Consider the time of year and that these feelings are temporary. Think of the power of your smile to brighten yourself and people around you.
- Monitor thoughts. Try to track your thought process. If we can track and find what might cause us to go down the rabbit hole of depression (a “trigger”), we have the opportunity to stop, shift our focus, and change our course from negative to positive. I like to always have something to look forward to. It could be a trip, a purchase, time with a friend or loved one. That keeps me focused on the positive.
- Choose wisely. Life is all about choice. We can choose to think and be positive or negative; we can choose to remember the good experiences as well as the bad. When we are stuck in thoughts of past negative experiences that are naturally part of depression, we overlook the experiences of today and our plans for tomorrow. So, when we’re depressed, it’s especially important to consciously choose to be more positive—with one thought or action at a time.
- Let there be light. Light — and not getting enough of it — is at the heart of this disorder. There is a spot in our bedroom where the angle of the winter sun pours through a window. It is where my wife sits to read, nap, or work on her computer. She loves to bask in that light. If you don’t have such a place, there is a light made just for this condition called a SAD light. It is 10,000 lumens strong, so it is not to be stared at, but positioned overhead to mimic sunlight. There are many testimonials about the difference this light makes.
- Be Active. Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and the person who published the first research on the syndrome and coined its name said, “When it’s cold and dark and you don’t feel energetic and aren’t active, it can turn into a vicious cycle. You don’t feel like getting up in the morning, so you pull the covers over your head, so you get less light. So, you feel more depressed, so you feel even less like getting up. Whereas if you force yourself to get up, then push yourself to do all these things, then you can feel much, much better.” Try to push through.
Each season was made to be enjoyed for what it is. If you study them, you will see how each one prepares us for the next one. It might help you get in rhythm with the seasons.