Is the Polar Vortex Messing With Your Mood?

A view of the Allegheny River during this week's latest blast of arctic air.
By Cristina Mestre

Feeling a little stir crazy this winter?  You’re not alone, says Dr. Dorothy Sit, assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and researcher at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC.

Approximately 14 percent of U.S. adults suffer from seasonal mood changes - the "winter blues" - with 6 percent suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  SAD can be related to the shortened length of daylight and the longer periods of darkness we experience in the winter. Also, having a pre-existing risk for depression, plus added stressors from seasonal job loss or holidays, can contribute to a depressed mood.

Fewer men are diagnosed with SAD than women, who make up 60 to 90 percent of SAD patients. SAD sufferers often eat and sleep more, feel unmotivated, suffer from reduced function, and exhibit hibernation-like behaviors such as avoiding the outside or social activities.

Overall, fewer than 1 percent of Americans have SAD. For patients who have bipolar disorder, which is characterized by distinct periods of severe mood swings from mania to depression, as many as 20 percent can suffer from seasonal depression. 

“Normally, getting outside for a walk and being active, especially in the mornings when there is increased light, can be a tremendous help in lifting our mood,” said Dr. Sit. “But unfortunately, that’s not always safe to do when the weather is as cold as it is now.”

So what can we do to lift our moods when going outside isn’t an option?

Some suggestions from Dr. Sit include:

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