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Winter Months Get You Down? It Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter Months Get You Down? It Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter Months Get You Down? It Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder

Everyone feels down from time to time. It’s natural to go through short periods when you feel stressed or sad about events going on in your life or you just feel a little “off.” For most people, times like this don’t last long, and they’re soon back to feeling like themselves again. But if you notice that the change of seasons seems to trigger bouts of depression that don’t go away and affect the quality of your daily life, you might have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

More Than the Winter Blues

Many people become anxious around the winter holidays or feel low after the excitement of the holidays is over. Dubbed “the winter blues,” this feeling usually passes fairly quickly. But some people experience a more serious type of depression that lasts for months and coincides with the changing of the seasons. Winter-pattern SAD, also called winter depression, usually starts in late fall or early winter when the days become shorter. Although some people experience SAD in the summer, it’s much more common in the fall and winter months.

Symptoms of SAD are often similar to those of major depression and include:

  • Feeling depressed nearly every day for most of the day
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling worthless, hopeless, or guilty
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of suicide

Symptoms specific to winter-pattern SAD include:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Overeating and craving carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • The desire to “hibernate” (social withdrawal)

Symptoms specific to summer-pattern SAD include:

  • Insomnia
  • Poor appetite and weight loss
  • Feeling restless and agitated
  • Anxiety
  • Bouts of violent behavior

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Experts don’t fully understand why SAD happens. But researchers believe it might have to do with a disruption in the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, when the days get shorter. Cues in the environment, primarily light and darkness, help regulate your circadian rhythm, including sleeping at night and staying awake during the day. Shortened daylight hours in the fall and winter can alter your internal clock, which affects your body’s production of serotonin, a chemical that helps manage mood, and melatonin, which helps you sleep. These disruptions can trigger SAD in some people.

SAD is more common for people who live in regions where winter days are shorter; for example, people in Florida are less likely to develop symptoms than those who live in Alaska or the northern part of the United States.

SAD can also be hereditary and is more common in people who have relatives with other mental disorders. People with SAD also often have other types of depression or mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, or mental disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, an eating disorder, or an anxiety disorder.

If you believe you might have SAD or another form of depression, visit your doctor. If you show several of the symptoms above during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years, you might be diagnosed with SAD.

How to Treat SAD

If you have been diagnosed with SAD, the good news is that several different types of treatments are available. These include:

  • Light therapy: The goal of this type of therapy is to expose the person to bright light to make up for the lack of daylight during the winter. It involves sitting in front of a light box for 30 to 45 minutes every day, usually right after waking up in the morning, from fall to early spring. To help prevent SAD, some people choose to begin before symptoms appear. Most people begin to see symptoms improve within one to two weeks of starting light therapy. Light boxes are about 20 times brighter than regular indoor lights and filter out harmful UV light, making it a safe option for most people. However, tanning beds are not a treatment for SAD, as these emit dangerous ultraviolet light instead of visible light.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Also called “talk therapy,” CBT helps people develop coping skills for difficult situations. CBT-SAD is customized for people with SAD and usually involves two weekly group therapy sessions for six weeks. During sessions, people learn to replace negative thoughts associated with winter with positive ones. For example, if you think of darkness and cold when you think of winter, CBT can help you learn to think of the things you enjoy about it instead, such as hot cocoa and pretty snowfalls. Therapists also encourage people with CBT to schedule time for pleasant indoor or outdoor winter activities to combat lack of interest.
  • Medications: Because disruptions in serotonin regulation can lead to SAD, many people benefit from antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs can be very effective at improving mood. Another type of antidepressant called bupropion can help prevent SAD when taken every day from fall until spring.
  • Vitamin D supplements: Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to the development of SAD. This is because vitamin D helps promote serotonin activity, and sunlight encourages vitamin D production. The lack of daylight in the winter can lead to vitamin D deficiency in some people, and taking supplements can help.

In addition to these specific treatments, prioritizing your overall health and wellness can also help manage symptoms of SAD. Be sure to:

  • Get regular physical activity. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-level exercise per week.
  • Eat a healthy diet filled with fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy.
  • Get plenty of sleep every night. Experts recommend getting seven to nine hours per night.
  • Make an effort to stay connected with others by getting together regularly with friends and family, volunteering, and participating in group activities for hobbies you enjoy.

Have questions about seasonal affective disorder? Find a provider at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County who can help.