While we try to make the season bright by trimming trees and by lighting candles, outside it's getting darker and darker. At the winter solstice (Dec. 21-22), daylight in the Northern Hemisphere is the shortest and dimmest of the year. The next few months will remain dark even as daylight begins to increase. The phenomenon is especially obvious for people who wake up before sunrise in winter and leave work after sunset.
Although light deprivation and winter weather may cause a lot of griping, there are some people whose complaints should be taken very seriously by their families, coworkers, health care providers and, indeed, themselves.
Millions of people suffer from a biologically based depression during this period. Although these people may feel fine or even "better than normal" during the spring and summer, late fall and winter are an entirely different experience.
Beyond depressed mood, seasonal affective disorder often brings a loss of interest or pleasure in everyday activities that are normally satisfying, such reading a good book or listening to music. Other common problems are a significant reduction in work productivity and withdrawal from friends and family that is hard to explain or justify.
Some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are physical. Appetite often changes in marked contrast to spring and summer. People can experience uncontrollable cravings for sweet and starchy foods such as cookies, chocolate, pasta and bread, which causes them to put on a few pounds. Dieting seems out of the question. Some notice marked changes in their need for sleep or their ability to sleep normal hours. It can become tough to wake up in the morning in time for work or school, and daytime fatigue persists no matter how much sleep they get at night. Indeed, people who sleep the most often also report the most fatigue; long sleep is just not restorative. As the days grow shorter in fall, it is the physical symptoms of seasonal affective disorder--appetite, sleep, and daytime fatigue--that are usually the first to be noticed. The symptoms of depression then intensify (January and February are usually worst) and can lead to truly devastating, unjustified feelings of worthlessness or guilt, loss of concentration, inability to make decisions, and even thoughts of death.
It is interesting to observe that people with seasonal affective disorder may be luckier than others whose depressions come and go unpredictably. Indeed, many have a long, brave history of suffering through till spring, knowing that the problem won't persist. As a result, however, they may resist seeking clinical guidance from a professional, under the illusion that the problem is only temporary. Others may realize that winters are worse, but not know if and when their symptoms become clinically significant. Indeed, far more people suffer from winter doldrums, a milder version of seasonal affective disorder, than from the full disorder with major depression. But even with the doldrums, the winter months challenge the quality of life, and the problem can be constructively addressed and relieved.
Whether you experience winter problems mildly or severely, for your own knowledge--and in planning for the future--we think you should carefully evaluate the range of symptoms and their seasonal pattern. A nonprofit professional agency, the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, offers a self-assessment questionnaire which includes an interpretation guide to help you decide if you should seek help.