WIUM Tristates Public Radio

When the Weather Makes You Feel Blue

Mar 30, 2017

As someone who suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), Katie Hutton spends most winters hibernating.  Showing symptoms of fatigue and hypersomnia, she prefers the warmth of her bed to the harsh weather conditions of Midwestern winters.

“With it being cold, it felt like all my energy was going towards making it through the day, because I was shivering, you know, and I didn’t want to go outside or anything,” Hutton said. “I think it was a mixture of the lack of sun and the cold weather”

Hutton, a recent graduate of Knox College, has suffered from seasonal depression since high school. SAD is a form of depression caused by the winter’s lack of light and warmth.

What happens, then, when winters are mild?

Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel reported this year’s winter was the fifth warmest winter on record for the state. The average temperature was 34 degrees, and there were more than 40 days of sunlight.

However, this did not help Hutton, who still struggled with low energy.

“We have had a couple of days, even last month, where it would get up to like the 60s or 70s, so that would be like really exciting, because it’s fun to be out and be like ‘Oh, it’s Spring,’ and then the next day would be 25 degrees and snowing,” Hutton said.

Hutton said the sudden changes in temperature were jarring. She said her body and mind weren’t given enough time to transition. Most years, Hutton “psyches” herself up for the colder seasons. She said this year’s unusual winter brought in periods of apprehension that made predicting and bracing for the cold days nearly impossible.

Hutton’s coping mechanism involves reaching out to supportive groups of people. She started seeing a counselor during her freshman year at Knox, which helped treat not only her SAD but also her depression in general. Beyond that, she learned to surround herself with friends to avoid isolation and fatigue.

Tierra Thompson from the Chicago suburb of Naperville suffers from symptoms similar to those of Hutton, but her experience was much different this winter.

“This year has probably been the best year for me,” Thompson said. “I’m considering moving within the next few months because of how great the weather’s been and how much that has made a huge impact on me both physically and mentally.”

Thompson has lived in Illinois for more than 20 years, but because of this year’s winter, she is now considering relocating to south Florida. Her sister lives there now, and Thompson thinks the year-round warmth would be good for her health.

Most winters, Thompson copes with SAD through full spectrum lamps that simulate sunlight, as well as vitamin B12 lipotropic injections, which are over-the-counter drugs that elevate energy levels. Thompson said she did not need them as much this winter.

Despite SAD’s connection to weather conditions, there are more factors to consider. Those who do research into psychiatry state that genetic and biological factors can also affect sufferers of SAD.

As with any type of depression, there is no one treatment or cure that will work for everyone.