Winter weather got you down? Join the club. “When the days get short and there’s not a lot of sunlight, it’s very natural for people to have a certain degree of—if not depression, at least sadness, moodiness, and lethargy," says Joseph Rock, PsyD, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. "It's like emotional hibernation.” Read: The reason it's that much harder to get out of bed in the morning, or prioritize a workout over a Netflix marathon.
The good news? That slump is probably not full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is still a real subset of depression, Rock explains. Shorter days with less sunlight shift our internal biological clocks by skewing the brain’s balance of melatonin and serotonin (the neurotransmitter and hormone that help regulate mood, sleep, and ability to handle stress). But according to a recent study from Oregon State University, weather patterns were more likely to have a small or moderate effect on mood than they were to bring about full-blown depression.
Think of the “winter blues” on a spectrum, Rock says. The best indicator your seasonal moodiness tips to the SAD side of that spectrum: your symptoms are unbearable or they interfere with your life. Read on to learn whether your winter woes are a serious concern--or just an excuse to spend more time on the couch.
1. Bummed or Hopeless?
Frustrated more easily at the office? More pessimistic than usual? That type of sadness or “feeling down” is fairly normal with seasonal blues, Rock says. But, if thoughts turn hopeless or suicidal, time to get a second opinion. If symptoms are severe enough, psychiatrists can prescribe antidepressants, or they may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (to help individuals redirect their thinking). Early research also suggests at-home strategies like “light box therapy”—sitting in front of a light that mimics the sun for about 20 minutes a day—may trigger chemical changes in the brain and help lessen symptoms. Such strategies could be helpful for more serious SAD symptoms as well as milder moodiness, Rock says.
2. Hit the Snooze Twice or Skipped Work?
Darker mornings, cold floors, and warm covers? All are begging you to hit the snooze again—and again… But, spending Saturdays in bed or skipping work means the winter weather may be getting to you. Loss of energy—oversleeping or feeling physically weighted down—are symptoms of SAD, Rock says. Your arms and legs may even feel physically heavier than usual.
3. Party of One?
Blowing snow and glazed roads sound like the ideal forecast for running down the DVR queue. But ditching Monday Night Football on a weekly basis or avoiding making plans just because of sub-freezing temps may be signs it’s more than moodiness. We all tend to use the weather as an excuse—it’s cold, it’s dark—for staying in, Rock says. But avoiding those situations altogether, what's known as social withdrawal, is an indicator SAD may be interfering.
4. Munch much?
Mindlessly snacking at your desk? Another midnight fridge raid? Increased appetite is a common side effect that comes along with SAD, Rock says—as are carb cravings. The body looks for the quick fix to feel better ASAP when mood and energy is down—and carb-laden comfort foods fit the bill. That said, snacking more often or a little weight gain alone are likely not a good measure of SAD. Looking at one symptom in isolation is usually not enough to give a clear indication you need to get help, Rock says. Watch out for symptoms that interfere with your job, daily activities, or relationships. At that point, you may need help, Rock says.
And to curb natural cravings, focus on a well-balanced diet that includes the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats.
5. Grumpy All the Time?
Snapped at your co-worker? He may have had it coming. But, if you find yourself having a hard time relating to your family, colleagues, and friends, it may be a sign that your emotional moodiness is too much for you to handle. Being down or depressed is a physical and emotional energy suck, Rock says. It takes all your energy to get through the day, leaving little for self-restraint when it comes to speaking your mind.
Again, it’s likely not full-blown SAD unless your crankiness is interfering with work or your personal relationships—or if you notice it along with several other symptoms, Rock says.
6. Unproductive at the Office?
Another day your to-do list went undone? We all hit the work “wall” from time to time. But if that wall stands twice as high when the temperature drops, SAD may be to blame. There’s no clear-cut line to measure by, but a good guideline to ask, Rock says: How much are you getting done compared to what you normally get done? If your mood is interfering with work on a consistent basis, it may be time to seek help.