With the holidays winding down, wintertime can feel a lot darker, especially if you are susceptible to seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Millions of Americans experience this type of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Experts say most people experiencing SAD see symptoms start in the fall and continue through the winter months.
Gothamist talked with three mental health professionals about SAD, its symptoms and ways to cope with it in New York City.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
“Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression, with all of the symptoms of depression,” said Jenny Seham, attending psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. We’re mostly familiar with SAD as a condition that affects people in winter. But Seham said SAD can also impact people during the summer months, though it is less common.
SAD fulfills the criteria for a major depressive disorder, said Michael Terman, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and president of the Center for Environment Therapeutics, a New York City-based nonprofit organization. Terman said the difference is that compared to other kinds of depression, SAD comes and goes with predictability.
With shorter days in the winter, we have less exposure to sunlight and our bodies produce less vitamin D. That can play a role in bringing on depression because vitamin D helps our bodies generate serotonin, the hormone that makes us feel happy, Seham said.
Another factor that can contribute to SAD in the winter is that our bodies produce more melatonin, which is the hormone that regulates our sleep, Seham said.
“We are needing to wake up to go to work, to take care of [our] family, and it’s dark out and the body’s saying, 'no, just stay in bed … I can’t get up,'” Seham said.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
People experiencing SAD may find themselves pulling back from things they typically enjoy, like going for a walk or hanging out with friends, Seham said. It is common for people to brush off these symptoms as feelings of laziness, Seham said, but if your shift in mood coincides with a change of seasons, SAD could be the root cause.
Terman stressed the importance of noticing the contrast between how you feel in the late spring and summer months, compared to November and December. He said it is something doctors should also be asking patients about when they come in complaining of fatigue and other symptoms.
Oversleeping and overeating are also common signs of SAD, according to Monique Lalane, associate director of social work at Bellevue Hospital. She said symptoms typically resolve when the seasons change, but they still should not be taken lightly.
When should you seek help for SAD?
When symptoms of SAD stand in the way of your routine, it is time to talk with a doctor, according to our experts.
“What we're really talking about here is more than just the winter blues … like [when] you really are having a hard time getting to work [or] you're having a hard time engaging with your family and friends in the way that you used to,” Lalane said. She encourages New Yorkers in crisis to take advantage of NYC Well as a free resource.
Terman said the Center for Environmental Therapeutics offers self-assessments on its website that are meant to be shared with a doctor or therapist. “It's important to tell someone about it and not to internalize it and think you can handle it yourself,” Terman said.
What options are available for treating SAD?
There is only so much sunlight we can soak up on a winter day, so experts say light therapy is one way to treat SAD. That treatment involves sitting in front of a very bright light box, but Terman said people should do their research before buying one, because there is a lot of “junk” on the market.
Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” is another route you can take to tackle symptoms of SAD. Talking to someone can help you develop various coping strategies for some of the challenges you might be facing, Lalane said.
They also highly recommend spending time with close friends and family as well as getting outside.
Where can you go in NYC to ease the blow of seasonal depression?
Seham recommends hitting up the city's greenspaces. Her top picks for getting outside are the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the New York Botanical Garden and Wave Hill, which she describes as the “best kept secret in Riverdale.” If you’re a runner, Seham suggests layering up and doing laps around the reservoir in Central Park. If you’re not athletic, she said it can be helpful to watch others in action. She recommends checking out the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center to elevate your mood.
Don’t go for a walk “in the shadow of a tall skyscraper” is Terman’s advice. He said you want to find an open space. One of his top suggestions is to take a walk along the beach on Coney Island.
“Walking along the beach without any cover … except for sky cover at an early morning hour is distinctly therapeutic and will provide a signal not significantly different from a light box at home,” Terman said.
If you prefer to stay indoors, Seham said another way to “combat the depression voice” is to immerse yourself in artistic expression. “It makes people feel better,” she said. Seham’s top picks are the Bronx Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and Broadway shows. Many museums and cultural institutions offer IDNYC cardholders free memberships or discounted tickets, but there are also other free or nearly free opportunities around town.
Lalane echoes this sentiment, saying “vivid colors and vivid images” can be very helpful in lifting your spirits. Her recommendations for soaking in art include the “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure” exhibition and the Louis Vuitton exhibition inside the landmark Barney’s New York building — but you'd better hurry, both are closing soon.