Storms got you down? UCLA doctor on seasonal affective disorder

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Months of rain, gloom, and unseasonably cold weather has gotten many of us feeling the winter blues. Photo by Shutterstock.

Months of rain, gloom, and unseasonably cold temperatures have gotten many Southern Californians feeling the winter blues. But could it be part of the phenomenon known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? 

SAD is a type of depression, characterized by sorrow, depression, loss of interest, appetite fluctuations, and low energy. Some cases can be more severe, resulting in feelings of worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, and even suicidal ideation. It’s widely thought to be caused by a biochemical imbalance and shifts in our circadian rhythm. 

An estimated 5% of Americans are said to experience the disorder. But in typically sunny Southern California, is it a stretch to say that this unusually dreary winter is enough to cause genuine mental distress?

Not so fast, says Dr. Michael Gitlin, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at UCLA. SAD is typically diagnosed among those living in gloomy areas up north — with fewer hours of daylight and colder temperatures — such as Seattle, Anchorage, or Stockholm. 

Its onset usually coincides with the fall and winter, as the hours of daylight decrease, starting in October and November, and lasting through April. (Some, however, also experience a summer version of SAD, characterized by trouble sleeping, anxiety, restlessness, and agitation.)

Gitlin says it makes sense that some Californians might experience a variation of SAD on gloomy days, especially those who already struggle with depression. The difference, however, lies in the fact that cold and dark weather is often short-lived in the Golden State.

“We have a few days of rain, and then we have a gloriously sunny day, as opposed to unrelentingly gloomy, gray weather as you might have in Seattle over the late fall and during the winter. So I think we need to make a distinction between feeling gloomy because it's raining out for a bit, versus true seasonal depression, which is based specifically on the length of the daylight.” 

But if the dark clouds and cold weather have got you down, there are ways to address the blues. That includes phototherapy via so-called light boxes. These SAD-fighting lamps mimic outdoor light by emanating full-frequency light at high intensities. The best lights, according to the Mayo Clinic, provide at least 10,000 lux of light and are specifically made to treat SAD. 

But Gitlin says one of the best ways to get some sunshine is just to step outside between the seemingly endless number of storms hitting California.

“If someone really is sensitive to light/dark cycles and or gloomy days, they can easily just buy a light box and turn it on in the morning for 30 minutes on those gloomy days. But if you walk outside on a sunny day in Southern California, you're getting much more light.” 



  • Dr. Michael Gitlin - professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at UCLA