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Could the "Winter Blues" Actually be a Seasonal Depression?

As winter and colder weather sets in, many people describe feeling more tired and sometimes even depressed during these months. For some, this is a normal response to having less sunlight and spending less time outdoors due to weather. However, for others, this can actually worsen into a clinical form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 

Individuals who experience SAD will notice that they will have depressive symptoms during the winter months, but then those symptoms disappear during spring and summer. This is a recurring experience, every season.

SAD is a relatively common experience, impacting 1-9% of people and is often seen at higher rates in colder and darker areas of the world, that are further away from the equator. For example, individuals living in sunny Florida experience SAD about 1.4% of the time and people in New Hampshire may experience it 9.7% of the time. It is seen more frequently in females and younger adults.

Some of the research studies have indicated that SAD is caused by the amount of serotonin that the person produces during the winter months. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that helps to regulate mood. Scientists believe that less sunlight during the fall and winter months may lead to the brain making less serotonin. It has also been noted that people who experience SAD also produce higher amounts of melatonin, a natural hormone that increases drowsiness as well as lesser amounts of Vitamin D. All of these chemicals have been noted to impact SAD and one’s experience of depression. 


Some symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  1. Sadness and depressed mood

  2. Feeling hopeless or worthless

  3. Greater need for sleep

  4. Fatigue and low energy

  5. Increased isolation and need to be alone

  6. Weight gain

  7. Less energy

  8. Trouble concentrating


What can be done? 

The recommended treatment of choice is Light Therapy. Since research has indicated a role in the amount of sunlight one receives with the production of melatonin and serotonin, it is seen as an important intervention. This is thought to impact mood regulation and light therapy is seen as a positive treatment for people with SAD. This therapy is usually provided with a light therapy box. It is recommended to sit in front of the light therapy box daily to gain exposure to artificial light. 

Other treatments may include physicians recommending a Vitamin D supplement if the person has been noted to have a deficiency and/or antidepressant medication or psychotherapy to address any thoughts or behaviors that can be altered to help on alleviating symptoms.


Coping Skills & Prevention:

  1. Spend some time outside everyday when possible as daylight may help

  2. Eat a balanced diet

  3. Get exercising as movement and physical activity are helpful

  4. Stay involved with social support

  5. Begin using a light box when fall starts, before feeling any negative effects



Resources:

Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255

Light Therapy Boxes

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/in-depth/seasonal-affective-disorder-treatment/ART-20048298


References:

Leahy, L.G. (2017). Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services. Nov 1;55(11) 10-14.


Blog written by: Dr. Shelley Sommerfeldt, Clinical Psychologist, Relationship Coach & Founder of the Loving Roots Project, an online wellness practice specializing in personal growth, mental wellness, & relationship betterment.

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