For many of us, winter is a great time to slow down, nestle in, and curl up with a good book and a mug of marshmallow-topped hot chocolate. For others, however, the shorter days, overcast skies and low temperatures can make it seem like spring will never come. Coupled with post-holiday blues, the dead of winter can send some people into a debilitating downward spiral that can be hard to climb back out of.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), 4-6% of Americans experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a cyclic type of depression that occurs between September and April but most typically during the winter months of December, January and February. Additionally, 10-20% of Americans suffer from a milder form of SAD commonly known as winter blues or sub-syndromal SAD.
The National Organization for Seasonal Affective Disorder (NOSAD) states that “SAD is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.”
Although anyone can experience SAD, those who are most affected are people ages 18-30, those living in the Northern and Southern hemispheres farther than 30 degrees from the equator, those who already suffer from depression, and women. In fact, women comprise 60-90% of persons with SAD, according to the University of Minnesota Duluth.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
If you have three or more of these symptoms, you may be experiencing SAD. Because SAD can come on gradually, it is not uncommon for a person to be unaware that they are affected.
Depression, including feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, and in severe cases thoughts of suicide.
General difficulty enjoying life – the future looks bleak.
Fatigue. A decrease in energy (even if you are sleeping more).
Difficulty concentrating. Feeling unmotivated. Memory problems.
Loss of interest in sexual activity and other pursuits you normally enjoy.
Changes in appetite including cravings for sweets and carbohydrates.
Changes in sleeping patterns including oversleeping, difficulty staying awake, disrupted sleep, and in some instances early waking.
A feeling of heaviness in your arms and legs.
Irritability. Inability to deal with stress. Fluctuations in emotion
Avoidance of social situations. Opting to remain at home when you know it is detrimental to your well-being.
TIPS TO WARD OFF SAD
According to NOSAD, an official diagnosis can be made after two consecutive winters of experiencing the above symptoms. In the cases of sub-syndromal SAD, feelings of anxiety and depression are significantly milder with symptoms centering more on sleeping and eating problems. Here are some things you can do to shore up your overall health and well-being, and help combat SAD:
Exercise regularly (preferably outside).
Eat right. Diet greatly affects your mental state. Be sure to eat plenty of veggies and fruit.
Drink water. This keeps your organs (including your brain) functioning at their optimum.
Stick with the same routine (sleeping/waking schedule).
Spend time outdoors soaking up as much natural light as possible. When in your home keep your curtains and shades open during the day to get in as much light as possible.
Simplify your life. Avoid making huge life changes during these months. Keep things as stress free as possible.
Get out and do something, especially with a friend.
Dress warmly to conserve energy.
If financially able to do so, take a vacation to a warm climate.
Rearrange your work area to be closer to windows. When in class or out at a restaurant sit near a window whenever you can.
Talk about what you are going through with a trusted friend, spouse or counselor.
In addition to the above tactics, light therapy has been shown to be an effective method for treating SAD. The minimum dose of light that can affect SAD is 2500 lux which is ten times greater than the light provided by ordinary light bulbs in homes and offices. A light box is a simple solution. A light box imitates natural light and is used each day during the winter months for a minimum of 30 minutes (usually in the morning). To learn more about light boxes and how to obtain one form this article by the Mayo Clinic.
The National Organization on Seasonal Affective Disorder makes the following recommendations regarding prescription drugs to treat SAD: “traditional antidepressant drugs such as tricyclics are not usually helpful for SAD as they may exacerbate sleepiness and lethargy. The non-sedative SSRI drugs such as paroxetine (Seroxat), sertraline (Lustral) and fluoxetine (Prozac) are effective in helping the depressive symptoms of SAD and combine well with light therapy. Other psychotropic drugs (i.e., lithium, benzodiazepines) have not proven very useful in the treatment of SAD.”
If you feel like you need professional help, contact a licensed mental health care professional.