The holidays are over, Spring is still a long way off, and the cold dark days of winter are in full swing. Beaches are covered in snow. Fountains across the country are frozen. It's no surprise why many of us feel a little down sometimes. Getting a mild case of the winter blues is fairly common. It's even considered normal. But in some extreme cases, the winter months can cause some people to develop a type of clinical depression, called Seasonal Affective Disorder. This type of depression typically begins in late fall or early winter, and goes away during the spring and summer. This type of depression displays a recurring seasonal pattern. To be diagnosed with SAD, people must meet the full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons for at least 2 years. SAD can occur during the summer months, but it is much more common during the winter. With SAD, seasonal depressions must be much more frequent than any non-seasonal depressions.
SYMPTOMS OF WINTER PATTERN SAD:
- Low Energy
- Weight Gain
- Excessive Sleepiness
- Social Withdrawal
- Being Female. SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than men.
- Living far from the equator. SAD is much more frequent in places far to the north or far to the south of the equator. For example, 1 percent of people living in Florida suffer from SAD, versus 9 percent of people living in New England.
- Family History. People with a family history of depression are more likely to develop SAD.
- Having depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen with changing seasons for those who have one of these conditions.
- Younger Age. Younger people are more likely to develop SAD than older people.
The exact cause of SAD is not known. However, research has been able to identify some possible links to the disorder. People with SAD may have trouble regulating serotonin. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter involving mood. People with SAD may also overproduce melatonin, which regulates sleep. As melatonin increases, people with SAD feel more lethargic. And people with SAD may also produce less vitamin D. Vitamin D insufficiency can lead to clinical depression symptoms.
First and foremost, if you think you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, please consult your doctor for a comprehensive treatment plan. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments:
- Medication. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to treat SAD. The FDA has also approved the use of bupropion, another type of anti-depressant, for treating SAD. As with other medications, there are side effects to SSRIs. Talk to your doctor about the possible risks of using this medication for your condition.
- Light Therapy. This has been an effective technique to treat SAD since the 1980's. The goal is to replace the diminished sunshine of the fall and winter months using daily exposure to bright, artificial light. Symptoms of SAD may be relieved by sitting in front of a light box first thing in the morning, on a daily basis from the early fall until spring.
- Psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is type of psychotherapy that is effective for SAD. CBT relies on basic techniques, such as identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts, along with a technique called behavioral activation. Behavioral activation helps a person identify activities that are engaging and pleasurable, whether indoors or outdoors, to improve coping with winter.
- Vitamin D. This treatment involves taking Vitamin D supplements to counter the deficiencies often found in people with SAD. However, the evidence supporting this treatment has been mixed. Some studies have found this treatment to be as effective as light therapy. Other research suggests it has no effect at all.
In summary, the long cold dark winter months can get anybody a little depressed from time to time. But when the depression becomes fairly constant, and has obvious links to the seasonal changes brought on by winter, (or in fewer cases, summer), Seasonal Affective Disorder may be the cause. If you suspect this is the case, seek the professional guidance of a doctor. There are treatments and techniques available that can greatly reduce the symptoms of SAD.
For WeatherNation: Meteorologist Matt Monroe