Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Urge to Hibernate


seasonal affective disorderWinter is hard and this year was particularly brutal.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that fluctuates with the seasons. It usually starts in late fall and early winter and goes away when late spring or early summer comes along. 

If you felt like this winter was worse than usual, you are not wrong: For the first time on record, Des Moines received more than 25 inches of snow in the shortest month of the year, February.

I am not a psychiatrist or a therapist so I can’t speak officially to increased incidence of SAD. However, I am a registered dietitian working as a health coach and I can say, anecdotally at least, that this winter is affecting people negatively.

I have noticed that my clients are having a rough go of it this winter. Exercise and healthy eating habits seem to be more difficult to maintain. Even my most dedicated clients are losing steam with their healthy routines. I’ll also admit, my pants are a little snugger these days as well. People want to curl up on the couch and hibernate.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

The theory that seasonal depression stems from our ancestors and is a form of hibernation was once dismissed by researchers. But recent studies seem to be paying attention to this theory more closely. When animals hibernate, they prepare for winter by sleeping a lot and trying to survive all winter on their fat store.

Evolution doesn’t require us to do that anymore, so, instead, we eat more and gain weight through the winter, and feel like laying around and sleeping all day. While SAD affects just a few percents of the population, many researchers believe most of us are susceptible to seasonal overeating, oversleeping and lethargy.  

Light Therapy for SAD

Treatment for SAD may include light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy. The most popular treatment seems to be light therapy. In light therapy, also called photo-therapy, you sit close to a lightbox so you’re exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up each day. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and helps our brain chemicals. Research on light therapy is limited, but it appears to be effective for most people who suffer from SAD.

Some simpler solutions include opening blinds and sitting next to a window at home or at work. You could also go outside for a short walk or even to sit in the sun for a little bit.

Even though the weather is cold, outdoor light helps. Exercise and other types of physical activity can help relieve symptoms as well. This is challenging because, as stated above, your inclination will probably be to crawl under the covers. However, if you can manage 15 minutes of physical exercise, it will help.

For those of us who suffer from SAD, we will start feeling better eventually.

Summer will come, I promise. Before you know it we will be spending our days outside, eating lighter fare, and staying up late to enjoy the longer days. 

In the meantime, try not to be so hard on yourself. Your actions are what Mother Nature intended. I mean, she’s probably binge-watching something on Netflix right now, under a blanket, in the dark, with a box of thin mints within an arm’s reach, saying “Just one more episode, then I’ll start defrosting some things.”

For more information on Seasonal Affective Disorder and its treatments, please consult your physician.

seasonal affective disorder


  1. My SAD is triggered by the summer solstice. I dread that the days are getting shorter. Conversely, I start feeling better after the winter solstice because the days start getting longer.


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