For the last few months, you have been in a slump, feeling antisocial, tired, and depressed. You don’t know why. All is well on the home front, work is picking up, and even your annual physical exam was good. So why can’t you shake this feeling of gloom? It might just be Old Man Winter’s fault. When we moved our clocks back one hour for Daylight Saving Time, we may have gained an extra hour of sleep, but we lost a bit of sunlight in the process. For some, the shift from autumn to winter can stir up more than just a case of the blues; it can trigger seasonal affective disorder, or its appropriate acronym, SAD.
What’s Making you SAD?
Old Man Winter is moody, and he spreads his “good cheer” with gusts of frigid air, downpours of rain, and mounds of snow and slush. Some enjoy this time of year, basking in the white wonderland, but for others, all they see is a graying landscape and long, dark nights. If you find yourself depressed and lacking energy, you are not alone. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects 500,000 Americans each year with December, January, and February being the most prevalent months of its appearance.
Dr. Norman Rosenthal was the first to describe the condition as seasonal affective disorder in 1984; previously, its symptoms were trivialized as the “winter blues.” Today, it is recognized as a legitimate mental health issue, identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) as a form of depression with a seasonal pattern. SAD is diagnosed when depression begins and ends during a specific season every year (with full remission during other seasons) and has been present in the individual for at least two years.
Clinical Neuropsychologist Jennifer R. Wolkin Ph.D. explains that disturbance of the biological clock and of neurotransmitters responsible for balancing mood levels (such as serotonin and melatonin) during the winter solstice can cause SAD symptoms. Change in sleep, eating and, work habits during the colder months due to schedule disruption after holiday or illness can also contribute to SAD, explains Kimberly Hershenson, a New York-based therapist who treats individuals of all ages with anxiety and depression. Missing events or outdoor activities due to the weather may also lead to isolation which increases the risk for SAD. “There is also the point that winter is often a time for vacations, which can add financial stress that exacerbates feelings of SAD,” Hershenson adds.
Living with SAD
We all feel grumpy when the weather is cold and dreary, but how do you know if you have a case of SAD? SAD can often mimic other types of depression, so it can be hard to self-diagnose. There is no official test to confirm that you have SAD, so it is best to schedule an appointment with your doctor who will take a thorough physical exam and history of your depression history. The doctor will most likely ask if have been depressed during the same season and have gotten better when the seasons changed for at least two years in a row. You may even be asked if anyone in your family has a history of SAD or depression. Bloodwork may be needed to rule out other sources of your symptoms.
Like other forms of depression, SAD sufferers complain of feelings of hopelessness about their life and tend to be pessimistic about the future. They prefer to stay indoors alone, avoiding social gatherings and exhibiting a lack of interest in family and friends. When they do venture out, they are irritable. Because of their low energy and lack of concentration, they prefer to spend their day sleeping. At work, they may have difficulty arriving on time, staying on task, and meeting deadlines. Due to their intense cravings for carbohydrates, excessive weight gain is common.
If you notice your child behaving differently than usual during the winter months, pay attention. Pediatric SAD symptoms may vary from those in adults. Kids with SAD may be easily agitated, throwing more temper tantrums and not doing well in school. They also might complain of vague body ailments when there is nothing wrong with them physically.
Depending on the severity of your condition, you may want to treat SAD naturally with some simple at home remedies. First, as hard as it may seem, make sure to stay active and social, so you don’t fall prey to cabin fever. Bask in the sunlight as much as possible. Walk to work if you can, or go for a short stroll during your lunch break. Moving your desk near a sunny window would be very helpful as well. Hershenson stresses self-care. She recommends starting a meditation practice (free apps are available on your phone such as 10% Happier or Breathe), taking a long shower or bubble bath, cooking your favorite meal, or having your favorite meal delivered and enjoying it free of electronics. Making time for yourself will help center you.
If you cannot do this or do not have access to light, consider artificial light in the form of phototherapy or light therapy. Phototherapy has been effective in 60 to 80 percent of SAD patients according to Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center that is also a leader in research, education and health information. Phototherapy is provided by a device that contains white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen to block ultraviolet rays. A diet that includes lots of proteins, berries, and foods rich in omega-3 will also be beneficial, as will limiting caffeine intake. Dr. Andrew Weil, a practitioner and teacher of integrative medicine for the last thirty years in Phoenix, Arizona, suggests vitamins such as B6 and folic acid which have been shown to curb mild depression. He also likes St. John’s wort, which has long been used in Europe as a treatment for mood disorders.
Counseling can provide help and support to people with SAD. One study found that six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in group format during two 90-minute sessions per week was as effective as 30minutes of10,000 Lux of cool-white fluorescent light each morning. “Let go of the guilt – it is not your fault you’re feeling depressed. Accept what you can and cannot control in the situation. You cannot control the fact that you’re currently depressed. You can control whether you take care of yourself with proper nutrition and sleep and look after your health by getting checkups,” says Hershenson. If all else fails, antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often the drugs of choice for SAD.
“Thankfully, much of the time, depression and anxiety rates that spike close to these changes tend to return to baseline after an adjustment period,” says Dr. Wolkin.
It may seem dismal now, but just as nature reemerges after months of being encased in coldness, so will you. Just ride out the storm of winter depression to reach the rebirth of spring.
There is a reason why so many flock to states like Florida and California during our winter vacation. There is a common misconception that sunshine and warmer climates equal happiness, but that is not the case. Every year since 2012, the United Nations publishes a World Happiness Report listing the top 20 happiest countries. This year the winners were Norway, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, and Finland – countries not exactly known for their sandy beaches. Dr. Rosenthal, in his landmark discovery of SAD, noticed a negative mood shift upon moving to New York from sunny Johannesburg. Subsequent academic research confirmed a correlation between high temperatures and positivity. But later research proved this theory untrue. In 1998, a study compared the level of happiness of Californians and Midwesterners and concluded that Midwesterners were just as happy as those from the Golden State, and that weather was not a deciding factor in affecting their overall life satisfaction. Another more recent study by Jaap Dennisen (2008) reiterated these findings and pointed to other factors such as genetics and agricultural success to explain why we seem to favor good weather. In a nutshell, good weather doesn’t necessarily cause good mood.
In fact, SAD is not reserved for the winter months alone. Summer depression can strike one in ten people who are predisposed to the condition. Scientists believe that too much light and high temperatures can adversely affects suffers, but there is currently not enough reliable data on the subject matter. Symptoms for summer SAD include poor appetite with weight loss, anxiety, and feelings of depression.
Frequent feelings of depression for most of the day, nearly every day
Low energy/ feeling sluggish
Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
Weight gain and intense craving of sugar and carbs
Desire to be alone
Did You Know?
SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than in men, especially females ages 15 to 55.
Typically, the further one is from the equator, the more at risk they are for seasonal depression.
Oslo, Norway has the highest reported percentage of SAD sufferers with a whopping 14 percent of its population suffering from the condition, compared to 4.7 percent in New York State and 1 percent in Florida.
Data obtained from National Institute of Health