Gray days of winter bring on the blues

Mood: With less daylight, some people find their spirits sinking with the sun. Lighten up

February 06, 2000|By Stephanie McKinnon McDade | Stephanie McKinnon McDade,SACRAMENTO BEE

In the fall, the sun is bright, the air is crisp and the leaves are brilliant shades of flame. In this light, it's hard to find fault with fall or its follow-up act.

But Muriel Strand is no fan of winter. "When I was a kid, the time between Christmas and President's Day was a wasteland," she says. "It's still glum."

Strand's moodiness can hardly be classified as depression or even seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mental disorder related to the change in seasons. She simply comes down with a case of the winter blues, the doldrums, the blahs.

Many people feel sad, lack energy or develop an overwhelming desire to curl into a ball as the days shorten and the skies gray.

Even William Shakespeare felt it. "A sad tale's best for winter," he wrote, probably on a dank English day.

Now, a scientific study validates our age-old gloomyitis.

Psychologists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst completed a study of 330 people that measured medical and psychological changes during each season of the year. And, surprise, they found that feelings of depression, as well as hostility, anger, irritability and anxiety, were strongest in winter and weakest in summer, with fall and spring falling between the extremes.

"The seasonal effect is significant," says Morton Harmatz, professor of psychology and principal investigator of the study, "but not clinically significant. These people aren't depressed. These are normal people with normal mood swings."

Using a test that measures moodiness on a scale of 0 to 60 -- 0 being the least depressed, 60 the most depressed -- the study found that the general public fluctuated between 0 and 10. In the summer, people might measure in at 3, for example, and in the winter at 7, Harmatz says. Most never measured above 10.

In comparison, someone with seasonal affective disorder would have similar fluctuations between winter and summer, but they would be in numbers closer to 20, Harmatz explains.

Mood swings seem to be controlled by light exposure, or lack thereof, a decrease in physical activity and maybe even diet changes, such as consumption of fewer fruits and vegetables and more fat and protein, found in winter's so-called comfort foods.

"We're guessing it's a combination of all these," says Harmatz, who is now using some of the same test subjects to investigate the causes of these mood swings.

"People do best when things are predictable," says Dr. James Margolis, a psychiatrist with the Sutter Center for Psychiatry in Sacramento, Calif. "For example, I've got a busy morning. I want to take off this afternoon and play golf. If it rains, I won't be able to play.

"It's going to throw me off my schedule, and it may make me irritable, sad, angry."

Margolis says it's important to prepare for winter's attack on the psyche. "People need to adapt." Staying fit is important. "Exercise is a potent treatment for moodiness and sadness and irritability, and even for reducing the severity of clinical depression," he says. "So let's say your only exercise is golf, and you can only play after work. After the time change you can't play after work. You need to develop an alternative exercise."

Some people may be affected more by light. The sun provides our bodies with melatonin, a natural anti-depressant. "A 20- to 30-minute walk in the middle of the day will expose you to more light," Harmatz says. Light boxes, electrical fixtures used indoors that create light almost as strong as daylight, are another option.

But Margolis suggests that "If someone is truly suffering from SAD, they need to see a competent medical professional and be screened" for psychiatric and/or physical problems.

About 10 million people suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Most sufferers live in the far northern or southern regions of the world, where sunlight is severely lacking in the winter months. But it's not unheard of to find patients in Florida, too. People express feelings of depression, fatigue, headaches and increased appetite. Treatments include anti-depressant drugs and treatment with lights.

Nonseasonal clinical depression is more widespread. More than one in five adults experience it at some point in their lives. "There are thousands of people walking around with clinical depression who aren't getting treatment," Margolis says.

The symptoms are far more severe than seasonal moodiness.

"Depression is a profound sense of sadness, excessive crying or an inability to cry, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, anxiety, and/or anger," Margolis says. "There are some alterations in body, gain or loss of weight, an increase or decrease in sleeping patterns.

"Energy level goes down. Creativity and the ability to think about things go down. People can't get out of bed. They can be suicidal."

Still, trapped in winter's clutches, millions may feel blue.

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