Let’s play a little game of would you rather…
Would you rather live in fall/winter or spring/summer conditions all year round?
Would you rather visit Hawaii or Antarctica?
Would you rather go swimming or skiing?
If you are anything like me, you chose to live, visit, and participate in summer activities. Living in NJ, it can be difficult to get through the grueling winters (and if you live more north, hats off to you because I couldn’t do it!), but the one thing that keeps me going is the thought of trading in my jackets and gloves for shorts and sandals. For many people who experience the cold and dark days of winter months, we may long for warmer days, but it doesn’t interfere with our everyday lives to the extent that Seasonal Affective Disorder can.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined as “a form of depression also known as SAD, seasonal depression or winter depression,” and it isn’t just being upset about the bad weather. SAD can actually affect the functioning of the 5% of adults in the US that experience it with depression symptoms for about 40% of the year. It typically occurs in winter months (although very severe cases can stretch into summer months as well) and is thought to be due to the low light of winter. This lack of light is predicted to be linked to chemical imbalances in the brain prompted by shorter amounts of daylight hours and less light in general. It is most common for people living far from the equator, and it affects more women than men.
Psychiatry.org offers a complete list of signs and symptoms which include the following symptoms, which can vary from mild to severe and can include many symptoms similar to major depression:
- Feeling of sadness or depressed mood
- Marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite; usually eating more, craving carbohydrates
- Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
- Increase in restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to get the proper treatment to control your SAD symptoms. Luckily, there are many ways to treat the disorder, including talk therapy such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), medication for symptoms, and light therapy. A combination of these could be best, so talk to your health care provider to help you put together an appropriate treatment plan.
To get a diagnosis, you should see your doctor for a physical exam to make sure your depression isn’t linked to an underlying health problem. Lab tests could also be helpful to rule out any other causes, such as thyroid issues. A psychological evaluation is also important for getting a diagnosis
At this point, you are probably wondering, what is light therapy? Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve you uprooting your life and moving closer to the equator! Light therapy is a simple fix, which includes the SAD patient getting about 20 minutes of light therapy from a light box usually in the morning during the winter months.
Cognitive behavior therapy can also help SAD symptoms (read more about CBT, an evidence-based approach that is used by our office, on our website), along with antidepressants. Psychotherapy can be used to learn healthy ways to cope with your feelings, learn how to manage stress, and identify and change negative thoughts.
The most important thing to do in a situation like this is to see a mental health professional right away in order to begin on the road to recovery. SAD is not made up. It is a form of depression that can be managed through a myriad of treatment options laid out above. Exercising, going outside regularly, light therapy, CBT, and anti-depressants can change the way you operate in the winter months and help you manage your symptoms. And maybe, eventually, you may even choose to ski over swim!