Rethinking The Winter Blues

In medical school I was taught to look out for Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, during the cold dark months. I expected my patients’ depression to worsen and for the winter blues to set in. After all, it made sense—who doesn’t want to hibernate until spring?

It turns out that this assumption was far from accurate.

New studies suggest that winter doesn’t quite take the emotional toll we once thought it did. In fact, the research suggests people deal with the gray and chilly weather pretty well. As science writer Christian Jarrett points out:

The results provided no evidence whatsoever that people’s depression symptoms tended to be higher in winter — or at any other time of the year. This lack of a seasonal effect was true whether looking at the entire sample or only respondents with depressive symptoms. The respondents’ geographical latitude and sunlight exposure on the day of the survey were also unrelated to depression scores.

Related research challenges the notion that our brains slow down in the winter months. In fact, there is reason to believe that brain function is enhanced during the winter.

As we well know, expectations shape reality. All those times I ascribed a patient’s sluggishness or sadness to Seasonal Affective Disorder, what was I missing? What else was going on in their lives that might have been affecting their mood or energy level? It was so easy to chalk it up to SAD, which may just be a “well­-entrenched folk theory.” Looking back, I wonder how many times I prescribed an anti-depressant or increased a patient’s dose in anticipation of the winter blues.

As Jarrett concludes, there is a silver lining to the winter:

If anything, the data suggest that our minds are more sprightly at this time of year than in the summer. Now there’s some news to brighten your day — even if it’s an abysmally cold, short one.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman