The Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Warwick was getting on everybody’s nerves, including his own. “I just hate this time of year! It’s cold, there’s nothing to do, work is a drag“. His wife, Stace, called it “Warwick’s time of the month”. But really it was his time of the year – late May to late August – the Winter Blues.


Not that long ago, the inhabitants of temperate climates (like Europe, the Middle East, and North Asia), transitioned yearly between two very different environments.

Summertime was a time of abundance. It was the time of long days, warmth, and brightness. Not that long ago, people mainly lived off the land. Summertime was productive time. The time to produce and hoard for the long, hard winter.

For wintertime was long and hard. Dark and cold, winter was unable to provide, so life went into standby mode while we eked out a living from the fruits of the summertime.

The temperate people, unlike their tropical cousins, had to adapt different modes for different environments, the different seasons. Energetic, goal-directed, expansive action mode of summer. Conservative, withdrawn, standby mode of winter.


Now, we have tamed the seasons. Now, we rarely live off the land. We ask ourselves to be productive year-round. We don’t rely on the sun’s rays to provide for us. There’s nothing stopping us now!

Except that we are left with bodies and minds that respond to the seasons like they always have. And for many of us, the winter continues to urge us to hibernate.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the scientific name for the Winter Blues. This type of episodic depression affects about 1% of people. It is especially prevalent amongst those living in cold places such as Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia.

For some people, SAD is a subtype of bipolar disorder. For these people, the summertime is associated with a higher chance of mania.

Even more common than SAD is a general grumpiness, irritability or melancholy that occurs in winter. This affects about 10% of the population.

How do we help this common problem? Usual treatments for depression and bipolar disorder tend to be effective for SAD. These treatments include medication, exercise, and talk therapy with a psychologist.

Specifically for SAD, Bright Light Therapy has shown promise. This therapy involves exposure to a strong light which mimics sunlight. It is thought that this treatment works by altering serotonin and/or melatonin levels.

Luckily, in Sydney, we still have the occasional bright sunny day in the middle of winter. So, if you suffer from the winter blues, try giving yourself 30 minutes in direct sunlight next time we get a pleasant day.

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