How to Tell If Winter Blues Are Seasonal Affective Disorder

PHOTO: People with seasonal affective disorder suffer from symptoms that mimic depression in the darkest months of winter.PlayGetty Images
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It's that time of year again. The holidays are long over, the frigid weather seems endless, and it's hard to remember the last time we left work before sunset. Grumble.

But some winter blues are more serious than others. Those with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, have seasonal depression because the lack of daylight exposure throws off their circadian rhythms. Symptoms echo depression and include sadness, fatigue, sleeping more and difficulty concentrating, but instead of experiencing a loss of appetite like people who have depression, SAD sufferers crave carbohydrates, said Dr. Joe Taravella, supervisor of pediatric psychology at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center.

"It affects anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the population," Taravella said of the disorder.

But by springtime, the symptoms disappear, he said.

Taravella said more and more people seem to realize they have more than just post-holiday blues in the winter months, and there's good news: it's treatable.

Taravella first recommends that patients try spending 30 minutes each day next to a full-spectrum light box that mimics daylight. He also suggested traditional talk therapy with a psychiatrist. When those don't work, some SAD sufferers take antidepressants.

SAD is more prevalent in the northern hemisphere, where it gets colder during the winter, Taravella said. It's also more common among women, and more common among people in their 20s and 30s, he said.

Although most symptoms go away with the change of seasons, complications can include suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and social withdrawal, according to Mayo Clinic.

Taravella said he encourages his patients to eat well and exercise in the winter to help with their mood and energy levels. And because people with SAD tend to isolate themselves as the winter progresses, he recommends keeping a normal social calendar and getting out to see friends.

"Your calendar forces you got get out," he said. "Because when you start feeling this way, you can become more of a hermit."

If you think you may have SAD, Taravella said the winter months are a good time to talk to your primary care physician, who will determine whether you have depression or SAD.