- Category: Volume 85 (Fall 2013 - Spring 2014)
- Published: 12 February 2014
With the winter months feeling as if they are never ending and spring nowhere in sight, the “winter blues” are hitting some people pretty hard. Yes, the winter blues are in fact real, along with another condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Even though SAD is common for many people during the colder seasons, there are many ways to prevent and help with symptoms of SAD.
Dr. Christine Hatchard, an assistant professor of psychology, explained that SAD is most similar to Major Depressive Disorder except SAD has a type of “seasonal pattern.” “This means that individuals must meet the criteria for major depression which includes a combination of symptoms such as sad or empty mood, fatigue, difficulties with sleeping, eating or concentration, feelings of guilt or worthlessness and possible suicidality,” she said.
Hatchard continued to say that once a diagnosis of depression has been established, a seasonal pattern then has to be identified. “This generally means that depressive episodes reoccur seasonally, most commonly during the fall and winter and the individual’s symptoms are in remission during other seasons, such as during the summer and spring,” she said. “When making this diagnosis, it’s important to distinguish a seasonal pattern of depression from events that occur seasonally and result in additional stress and possible mental health problems as coping mechanisms are strained, such as returning to college or the holidays.”
The winter blues can be confused with SAD, that’s why it is so important to make sure that a seasonal pattern is recognized, according to Hatchard. “Winter blues can seem similar to depression, but the symptoms are not as severe and are unlikely to result in a high level of distress or significant difficulty with functioning,” she said.
Other symptoms of SAD include: hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, heavy “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, appetite changes and weight gain, according to mayoclini.org. The website explained that the symptoms usually start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
According to mayclinic.org, the specific cause of SAD is currently unknown but there are several factors that may result in the disorder. The website gives three factors: your biological clock (circadian rhythm), serotonin levels and melatonin levels. The website also states that there are various risk factors that may increase your chances of getting SAD. These aspects include: being female, living far from the equator, family history and having clinical depression or bipolar disorder.
Anthony Panissidi, 2012 alum and business reporter for The Asbury Park Press, said he has never seen a doctor for SAD but believes he may have it. “I hate the cold, especially because it gets dark so early,” he said. “I find myself more lethargic and less happy. I also lose motivation to do things that I normally can’t wait to do in the summer, like go to the gym or visit a friend after work.”
Panissidi explained that he began to notice a change in his mood during the winter months sometime during high school. “Before then, I used to get excited about the possibility of snow during the winter, so I never really thought about anything else. I still get excited about snow, but I could do without it,” he said.
Panissidi continued by saying he does not do anything to help relieve his SAD symptoms. “ … at least not outside of counting down the days until spring and summer. Get me to a beach already,” he said.
A 23-year-old assistant supervisor at a food store who wishes to remain anonymous believes that he/she may have SAD as well. “I’d like to see [a doctor] just because I’d like reassurance that it’s not only in my head,” he/she said. “But I don’t like the thought of being on medication and I’m sure it would lead to that, [at] least during the winter months.”
He/she explained that when fall comes and the days get shorter, he/she just gets “significantly less happy in general” and not about anything specific. “I also just like to sleep and stay in bed … Not that I’m tired, I just don’t want to be awake. These types of things don’t happen in the summer time, even when I’m home with no plans,” he/she said.
As for getting medical help or treating his/her symptoms of SAD, he/she said he/she “kind of just [goes] with it.” “The past couple of years I’ve joked and called it my hibernation. Like a bear, I know I’ll snap out of it come spring time,” he/she said.
There are antidepressants that can be used to treat SAD but there are also other ways to treat the condition, according to mayoclinic.org. For example, phototherapy, also known as light therapy. Mayoclinic.org states that during phototherapy patients “sit a few feet from a specialized light therapy box so that [they’re] exposed to bright light. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.”
Hatchard explained that “full spectrum” (natural light) light bulbs can also be installed in homes and help with the therapeutic effect. She said that the full spectrum lights are different than phototherapy because the light box for phototherapy is intended for more serious sufferers.
Psychotherapy is another type of therapy that can be used to treat SAD, according to mayoclinic.org.
Self-help strategies can also be used, explained Hatchard. “These might include: getting sunlight and fresh air, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, participating in a fun outdoor winter activity, exercising, spending time with friends and trying a new and exciting hobby,” she said. “Individuals should resist the urge to sleep in too late, which is easy to do during the winter but limits the amount of natural light in your day.”
Health.com posted an article called “The Secrets to a Super-Happy Winter” that discussed certain tips to do during the winter to make the cold more enjoyable. The tips included: winterizing your workout, eating healthier, socializing in group activities, participating in winter activities like ice skating, planning a future trip or vacation, dressing warm and staying in sunlight. The article then provides examples for each point.
Even though winter activities may not be considered self-help strategies, they can certainly make the winter months more bearable. Who doesn’t love building a snowman or cuddling up next to the fireplace under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate while wearing a pair of fuzzy socks?
The anonymous 23 year old feels as if some people think SAD is a “made up” thing. “I have had people tell me that there isn’t a way the seasons or the weather can affect your mood. It’s hard to explain to someone how for a few months of the year, you’re just down and sad so often for no real reason,” he/she said.
James Morecraft, a senior psychology major and the President of the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology and the President of the Psychology Club, has never experienced someone with SAD but has learned about the condition. “Based on knowledge from coursework, it is important to normalize the feelings of those affected, ensuring them this is something experienced by many,” he said.
Morecraft continued to say that his advice for someone experiencing SAD would be to seek treatment immediately and not to “bypass the symptoms.”
Molly McCluskey, 1999 alumn, was a National Park Ranger of Interpretation in Alaska. “My town was in a narrow valley, and on the shortest days, the sun passed through it in about 45 minutes,” she said. “ … there were about for straight months (late October to February) where there was no sunlight. It wasn’t always solid black but a dark grey for several hours. Having no sunlight definitely affected my sleep patterns, eating habits and overall energy levels.”
McClusky explained that only having 20 hours of sunlight did impact some people negatively but she loved having late night softball games or “watching the really, really long twilight.” She said she would advise people with SAD not to drink during the colder months. “… alcohol is a depressant and when combined with cold mornings, and late nights, [it makes] a terrible combo,” she said.
The winter months can bring out depression in some people but there are many different things that can be done to help with symptoms. Whether it is seeing a doctor or just being in the sunlight more, make sure to be open to options in case you are feelings traces of SAD or the winter blues. Hopefully though we will be seeing the signs of spring sometime soon.