Jan/Feb
2016

More than the Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Written by Cindy Mennenga
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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is an insidious type of depression that wraps itself around those who are impacted, binding them tightly in a profound cocoon of sadness and lethargy that shows itself during the long winter months. Usually beginning in mid-to-late September, as the days become shorter and we have less exposure to natural daylight, the symptoms come on slowly, building to their crescendo of agony by the holidays and into January. Gradually, ever so slightly, symptoms improve as the daylight returns to the northern hemisphere, heralding of longer days. SAD often lasts until early April. 

I AM SAD. ARE YOU?

If you or anyone you know has SAD, you understand the profound impact it can have on the person who grapples with the disorder. I have struggled with SAD for the past 15 years. Initially, I slipped into a deep, dark depression, and it seemed as though nothing could pull me out of the despair. Eventually, as spring arrived, I noticed that I felt better. I had more energy and a sense of joy returned. When autumn came again, I felt the same depression slipping over me and delivering me back to the sense of hopelessness and dread I had experienced the previous winters. My doctor diagnosed me with SAD, prescribed antidepressants, sent me to counseling and suggested I get a lightbox to treat my disorder. Being the ever-dutiful patient, I got a lightbox and used it religiously every day, as prescribed. It helped somewhat, but I still felt a tremendous sense of sadness and experienced incredibly low energy. 

There is a common rule of thumb which suggests that anyone who lives north of Atlanta, Georgia should supplement with vitamin D to mitigate the symptoms of the winter blues. Many people experience the blues during winter; however, SAD is an extreme version of the blues.

WHAT IS SAD?

According to Dr. Jeff Gursky, physician chair of Olmsted Medical Center’s Psychiatry/Psychology department, “Seasonal Affective Disorder is the most commonly used name for what psychiatrists and psychologists call Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. The most common symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include depressed mood, low interest or pleasure in activities, reduced energy, increased amount of sleep, increased appetite with a potential increase in carbohydrates and weight gain. It is not uncommon for people to feel some of these symptoms during the winter months, as there is less sunlight and opportunity for physical and enjoyable activities. However, to meet the criteria for Seasonal Affective Disorder (Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern), one’s symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. Treatments with evidence of effectiveness include antidepressants, cognitive-behavioral therapy and the use of a light box.” 

ALLEVIATING SYMPTOMS

There are several things one can do to manage the effects of SAD. Getting regular exercise is a good idea, year-round, as it helps to get the endorphins firing. Also, getting outside for 20-30 minutes each day is a great way to absorb some vitamin D from the sun. Supplementing with vitamin D has been helpful to many SAD sufferers, myself included. Another popular treatment option is the use of a light therapy box. 

According to Mayo Clinic, “Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and other conditions.”

There are a variety of things you can do to lessen your symptoms and return to your normal activities. If you feel that you or anyone you know may have SAD, take a peek at the tips below and implement as many as possible to help you begin to feel better. 

TIPS TO REDUCE SAD SYMPTOMS

Here are some tips from a variety of resources to help prevent and conquer Seasonal Affective Disorder. As always, if you suffer from depression or are facing other mental health concerns, it is best to seek professional help.

Implementing these suggestions may reduce symptoms and enable those diagnosed with SAD to enjoy a better quality of life during the long winter months than they have in the past. If you think you may have SAD, make an appointment to see your doctor and get help, so you can enjoy life once again. 

Cindy Mennenga, owner of Straight-Talk Wellness, is a health coach and freelance writer based in Rochester.