Does grey winter skies and snow storms give you the winter blues so badly, you feel like you don’t even want to get out of bed? If so, it might be more complicated than the weather. You may be one of many sufferers of Seasonal Afffective Disorder (SAD), a subtype of seasonal depression.
University of Toronto assistant professor and director of CBT Canada, Greg Dubord says, “SAD is often dismissed as the “the winter blues”, and seen as an excuse people living with Depression are accused of making for their condition.”
Seasonal Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects people seasonally. Harsh Canadian winters and more research into SAD has led many people to come to understand this mental disorder and to learn how to combat it. It can be a real struggle for those who feel unmotivated, constantly exhausted, and depressed in the wintertime; yet, these feelings (or symptoms) are often dismissed as a change in the weather.
What is it?
SAD is a form of major depression that occurs in one specific season, and was formally name in 1984 by Norman E. Rosenthal at the National Institute of Mental Health. Most people experience seasonal depression in the winter, though some people have the disorder in the spring.
Seasonal depression is considered a subtype of major depression, but differs from the traditional mental disorder because it arises at a specific time of year and returns annually. According to the Mood Disorders Council of Manitoba, two to three per cent of Canadians suffer from SAD compared to less than one per cent in the United States. Women experience symptoms more commonly than men.
What are the symptoms and signs?
Common physical side effects include fatigue, insomnia, oversleeping, food cravings, weight gain, anxiety and “a heavy “leaden” feeling in the arms and legs.
But, it’s the psychological effects that effect people more commonly. According to Dubord, these include “feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; feeling hopeless or worthless; losing interest in activities once enjoyed; having difficulty concentrating; feeling irritable and/or anxious; having difficulty getting along with others; avoidance of social situations; being hypersensitive to rejection; and having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.”
Bright light creates serotonin, which is absorbed by the retina and through the pituitary gland. The lack of this specific hormone also causes drowsiness and exhaustion. When a person isn’t exposed to a particular amount of light, it can cause depression or SAD.
What can you do about it?
“Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), in combination with light therapy, is considered the best overall treatment for addressing both physiological and psychological vulnerability to SAD,” Dubord says.
A combination of methods helps to manage the symptoms of SAD which includes traditional major depression therapies as well as specialized light therapy. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps patients recognize and isolate certain thought patterns in order to challenge or alter them. It is commonly used to treat mood disorders.
Other methods of therapy include exercise, improving sleep patterns, making sure to have social interactions, and planning outdoor activities to get fresh air and enjoy oneself. Planning winter trips to sunnier destinations can help if that is possibility and actively. Possible outdoor activities include ice skating, snow shoeing, a winter walk, and a sleigh ride.
Thanks to some great technological advancements, products exist that can help alleviate symptoms of SAD. A light box, for example, helps to regulate the internal body clock by providing light at any specific point the person needs it — the morning for example.
A light box is a fluorescent light device that produces a light intensity of 2,500 to 10,000 lux at a distance of 1-2 inches. The common length of time for light box therapy is 30 minutes, ideal for a morning routine. Light boxes can be found in the form of an alarm clock, desk lamp, a floor lamp, and a ceiling light.
Which stigmas prevent people from pursuing treatment?
The “winter blues” is a common term used when someone feels down during the snowy season and is often mislabeled for SAD. This confusion causes people to misunderstand the severity of their symptoms.
“Like depression, there is a stigma associated with SAD that interferes with people’s willingness to seek diagnosis and treatment.”
The fact that SAD only arises at a specific time during the year, and then its symptoms virtually disappear, exaggerates the stigma.
Whether you are experiencing the “winter blues” or seasonal depression, know you are not alone.