Arboretum News

Fight those ‘Winter Blues’

Going outside for 30 minutes daily can help prevent symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, caused by a reduced level of sunlight.

Photo above taken in Wilson Shrub Rose Garden by Mark MacLennan.

Green Heron Pond in January 2021. Photo by Sara Pace.

By Jean M. Larson, manager of the Nature-Based Therapeutic Services Program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

It’s here!  Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), that is.  About five percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression — also known as the “winter blues” — a subtype of depression that typically occurs when the seasons change. It most commonly affects people starting in the fall and continues into the winter months.  Below are my answers to frequently asked questions related to what causes seasonal depression, its symptoms, and what people can do to lessen the symptoms.

Q: What causes seasonal depression?
A: Essentially seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is caused by a reduced level of sunlight beginning in the fall and continues through the winter months. This change of daylight may affect a person’s serotonin level, thus affecting mood. Research suggests lower levels of serotonin are linked to depression. 

Q: How common is seasonal depression?
A: A study done in 2013 found the prevalence of SAD approaches 10 percent in northern latitudes, which makes sense because the further one is from the equator, the lesser amount of sunlight. On average, about five percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression depending on geographical region. There is a higher rate of SAD among women and, on average, people start to feel the effects of SAD between 20-30 years old. 

Q: What are the symptoms of seasonal depression?
 According to the Mental Health America National Organization, symptoms of seasonal depression can be similar to those that occur with depression. It can sometimes be difficult to discern SAD from other types of depression. However, keeping in mind there are similarities, a diagnosis of seasonal depression can only be made after two consecutive occurrences of depression that begin and end at the same time every year, with the symptoms subsiding the rest of the year.

However, there are symptoms associated with SAD such as:

  • Depression: misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, diminished interest in activities, despair, and apathy;
  • Anxiety: tension and inability to tolerate stress;
  • Mood changes: extremes of mood and, in some, periods of mania in spring and summer;
  • Sleep problems: desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes, disturbed sleep and early morning waking;
  • Change in eating habits: carbohydrate craving, increased appetite, weight gain;
  • Lethargy: feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine;
  • Social problems: irritability and desire to avoid social contact;
  • Sexual problems: loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact.
Archive photo from 2012 by Karen Blenker.

Q: What are some preventative measures people can take to lessen their seasonal depression symptoms?
 Research suggests a simple routine, such as going outside for 30 minutes each day, can improve your overall wellbeing. These effects can include stress reduction, increased physical activity and better sleep quality.   

Want help to beat the winter blues?  Then I invite you to come out to the Arboretum for a daily dose of nature.

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