"When it's dark and cold outside, I have crying outbursts for no reason."
This winter, most of us have had days when it was tough to get out of bed in the morning, or we felt a little gloomy looking out the window in the afternoon and realizing that the sun was already on its way down.
But for some women, winter brings on something more serious than just a temporary dip in energy or mood. The arrival of cold, dark days triggers seasonal affective disorder. SAD, as it's known, is related to depression, but symptoms only occur during certain times of the year—most often, during the winter months.
Cold temperatures can play a role, says Angelos Halaris, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Loyola University Health System. But for most people with SAD, the biggest factor is the dearth of sunlight. “With SAD, there’s a lack of motivation to engage in regular activities, to go to work or see friends or do things that are normally fun,” says Dr. Halaris. “You aren’t seeking out pleasurable activities, whether it’s sex or social activities or exercise or just getting out of the house.”
For people with SAD, the cold weather months pose very real emotional and physical challenges. We spoke with 5 women who opened up about how they are coping with this reality now, in the middle of winter.
“I have crying outbursts for no reason”
“When it’s cold and dark outside, I feel depressed: I have crying outbursts for no reason, everything feels heavy, and my body physically hurts. The thought of getting dressed in all those layers to just leave the house—and then get where I’m going and take all those layers off again—just feels like so much work, it’s overwhelming. This past weekend I actually went out with a friend, but half an hour later I just wanted to go home and be in bed next to the radiator.
I’ve been to therapy a few times, and the seasons have come up as part of the reason I feel this way. I know that I feel better when I go to the gym, but it’s hard to motivate myself to get out of the house, and I usually just feel too tired. I’m still hopeful I can find something else that helps, besides just sticking it out and waiting for the spring and summer.”
—Maia Senderowitsch, PR professional
“Lately I've been the most negative and bitter person”
“I’m from Los Angeles but moved to London last year to be with my British husband. The move to a cold, rainy, and gray destination has been extremely challenging, especially because I work from home. This winter, I’ve felt low energy and had no motivation to go outdoors—which only enhances my feelings of depression. I’m usually very positive, but lately I’ve been the most negative and bitter person. It feels very taboo to complain about the weather, but when I see it snowing outside it makes me want to cry.
My husband recommended I buy a SAD light, and I’ve started spending time in front of it while I work in the mornings. And I’ve finally managed to establish a workout routine at a studio down the street from my house, which definitely helps. But I’m genuinely considering moving back to Southern California because the effects of the weather are too much; they’ve even impacted my productivity levels for my business. Everything feels foggy and it's difficult to focus.”
—Alexandra Jiminez, travel blogger
“The shorter days put me in this terrible inertia”
“There’s something very real about the way the shorter days put me into this terrible inertia. Recently, I posted on Facebook about how the combination of seasonal affective disorder, my therapist closing her practice, and a number of other variables was making it so that I was having a hard time leaving my apartment and walking literally around the corner to my office.
But just talking about it, and getting so many responses from people reaching out or offering advice, really did help me feel less alone and less depressed. I’ve also been taking Vitamin D and trying to exercise; finding a workout class right down the street has been helpful, since there’s not the added hurdle of getting in the car and driving somewhere."
—Sari Botton, writer and editor
"SAD feels like anxiety and depression"
“For me, SAD feels like anxiety and depression specifically during, and triggered by, the winter months. Feeling more anxious than usual or more frequently depressed and low-energy can be signs of SAD, as well as having these feelings for persistent lengths of time as opposed to a day here or there.
Many years ago, I was speaking with a co-worker about feeling low during the winter months, and she said she was reading a book about SAD called Winter Blues. She loaned it to me and it was very enlightening. I got a light box and began using it (and recently wrote about my experience). It's meant to mimic sunlight, so it's definitely not the same as just staring at an ordinary lamp.
I strongly feel that the positive effects of using a light box begin pretty quickly, after only about two weeks. Consistent use helps, too, so it's not just about sitting in front of the light box when you feel blue, but making it a daily part of your routine. And definitely for some people it might not be the sole way to address their SAD—maybe using a light box along with other treatment like medication or therapy might be helpful."
—Luisa Colon, writer
“I have a limited amount of energy every day”
“As every August comes to a close, I start to feel this rising sense of panic; my chest feels heavy knowing what’s coming over the next few months. For a long time I thought it was normal to feel this way, but through therapy I’ve been able to understand that it's actually a response to knowing that my day-to-day life is about to get much harder.
That’s one thing I want people to know: For a lot of people, Fall isn’t just a beautiful crisp, autumnal, pumpkin spice time; it’s the beginning of a month-long process of building coping mechanisms to get through the winter. For example, I take a very low dose of Zoloft for anxiety year-round, but I up my dose in September and lower it back down in April when I’m starting to feel my energy come back.
I think people also don’t realize how tired you get with SAD: The idea of leaving the house after 5 p.m. seems impossible to me most nights. I feel like I have a limited amount of energy each day, and in the winter, there’s no way to recharge. If I blow through it too early, it’s going to be a real trudge for the rest of the day.
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It could be easy for me to think, ‘There’s something wrong with me,’ but I’ve learned that it’s not actually me; it’s a disorder that I live with. In one sense, that mindset helps me suck it up and get out of bed or leave the house and socialize, but in another it allows me give myself some slack and not push myself too hard.”
—Shana Gozansky, theater director