By Ari D. Gleckman, Ph.D., ASA Concierge Psychological Services, LLC, Indiana Polyclinic; and Adrienne Miscimarra, B. A. University of Indianapolis, Indiana Polyclinic
It seems as though one can become depressed by just pulling up the weekly forecast these days as high temperatures barely reach double digits. Along with the freezing cold temperatures, school cancelations, demanding clients, winter weather warnings and lack of sunshine comes the potential for seasonal affective disorder.
What is S.A.D.?
Seasonal affective disorder, adorably abbreviated as S.A.D., is characterized by recurrent or cyclical episodes of clinical depression that usually occur in the late fall and winter. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, S.A.D. is estimated to affect approximately 6% of the U.S. population and is more commonly found in women and young adults. Seasonal affective disorder appears to be more prevalent among people who live further away from the equator. While very rare, there are instances where seasonal affective disorder occurs in the summer months, appropriately termed summer-onset S.A.D.
To make matters even more confusing, the media (and even some researchers!) interchanges the term seasonal affective disorder with “winter blues.” However, make no mistake, the terms are not interchangeable. The winter blues are a mild version of S.A.D., meaning depressive symptoms are not as severe or as intense as those seen in individuals diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. An estimated 14% of the U.S. population suffers from the more mild winter blues (American Academy of Family Physicians).
What does S.A.D. or the winter blues feel like?
The symptoms of both S.A.D. and winter blues may include:
- severe loss of energy
- loss of motivation
- indifference to or a loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities
- suicidal thoughts
- overeating (especially those carbs)
- weight gain
- sleeping too much
- irritability and a lack of concentration among others
- Winter blues is simply a milder, less severe form of S.A.D.
To clarify, simply being mildly depressed during the winter does not mean that one has seasonal affective disorder.
How does S.A.D. relate to me?
Depression may not be the only thing that’s seasonal as anecdotal and archival research show that divorce rates in the US spike in the January and February months. Numerous explanations for the seasonality of divorce exist. Money and family issues magnified within the holiday season may have broken the camel’s back. Practically speaking, by waiting until January 1 to begin divorce proceedings, the couple can still file a joint tax return and get the tax benefits of filing as a married couple. Let us not forget Valentine’s Day, which can either be wonderful or dreadful. If it’s the latter, that could be what pushes the couple over the edge and into your office. It could even be as simple as a long, hard winter holding individuals hostage indoors, forcing them to be together more than they'd like.
This influx in marital discord means a high winter demand for the services of those in the legal profession who specialize in divorce proceedings. Added workload and increased stress levels make these individuals more vulnerable to contracting S.A.D. Knowing that one is predisposed to such a condition, he or she can take proactive steps to protect against the onset of seasonal depression.
How do I prevent or treat S.A.D.?
There are many things one can do to prevent and/or combat this seasonal phenomena. Find what works best for you.
Lighten Up! (Literally): expose yourself to more light during the winter time.
- Indoor Light Therapy (phototherapy): The most widely used treatment for S.A.D. is bright- light therapy - daily exposure to bright artificial light during the problematic months using a lightbox, which is far more powerful than a customary incandescent lamp. Individuals may also opt for dawn simulation therapy, which involves timing lights in the bedroom to come on gradually, over a period of 30 minutes to 2 hours, before awakening in order to reset an individual’s internal clock. Studies have not necessarily found one treatment to be better than the other and, in fact, some people use both!
- Sunlight Exposure: I know what you’re thinking, “Not in this weather!” The truth of the matter is that the brightness outdoors on a sunny day is drastically greater than the light emitted from a manmade fixture. If you can go out for a walk when the sun is out, put on your overcoat and get outside, even for a moment! Just placing yourself by a window or parking further away from the entrance to your office or the grocery store can provide you with a bit of much needed light exposure.
Maintain a regular routine or schedule. Anything you can do to provide structure and routine to your daily activities will help to prevent the further disruption of your internal
circadian rhythms. In essence, by managing your external clock, you’re managing your internal clock. This routine includes having a regular eating and sleeping schedule. Do your best to go to bed at the same time each night and eat your meals at the same time each day. Put a bit more effort into planning during these months.
Keep moving. Just because the Monon is covered in ice and snow, you are not barred from boosting your exercise routine by hitting the gym or searching YouTube for some great at-home exercise videos. Even dancing around in your home, singing into your hairbrush or jogging in place as “Eye of the Tiger” reverberates in the background burns calories and can provide a mood booster.
Limit your consumption of alcohol, sugar, and high-fat foods. While these three groups have a great way of initially increasing your mood temporarily, they all leave you feeling groggy and fatigued. What you eat has a huge effect on how you feel as certain sugary foods can affect the same neurochemicals in our body as narcotics.
- Get together with friends. Humans are social beings. Winter (and Facebook) tends to sequester us away in our respective abodes and limit our contact with one another. When we start to feel depressed is most often the time when we want to isolate ourselves the most. Resist! Better yet, be the support for those you care about and do not give up on making plans with them, no matter how tired they claim to be. By agreeing with your friends and family to hold one another socially accountable, you have a built-in protection against hibernation. So get out that event calendar and start planning some dinner parties.
- Give back. Winter conditions produce even more opportunities for individuals to lend a hand to those in need. The holiday spirit brings about donations and volunteers from many walks of life. However, individuals and communities’ basic and financial needs do not disappear simply because the New Year has begun. By devoting your time to others through acts of altruism, one finds the forming of a sense of purpose – a sure antidote for those winter woes.
Reach in. You, yourself, can be a mood booster by cultivating your inner vitality and spirituality. Prayer, meditation, mindfulness, inspirational reading and religious observation are all ways to provide perspective and shine a light on the darkness of your winter days.
Restructure your thinking. Our mood and the way we feel is deeply connected to the thoughts that go on inside our head. The connection is so intrinsic that we often do not realize how much power we have over our own emotions. Becoming more mindful of negative thoughts, such as “I cannot take much more of this polar vortex” or “That no good groundhog saw his darn shadow again and cursed us,” will allow you to better recognize the connection these thoughts have to your glum disposition. By responding to these thoughts without inserting doomsday connotations, you prohibit them from lowering your mood. After identifying the thoughts, rephrase them. For example, “I know how to handle these freezing temperatures despite the discomfort they cause” or “Warmer weather will eventually
come regardless of a rodent’s prophecy. For now I will meet the challenges of winter and be better for it.”
Challenge yourself. Do you recall that new hobby you wanted to take up or that project around the house that has been on your to-do list forever? These winter months are the best time to do it (as long as the hobby is not roofing or water skiing). If you do not have anything that comes to mind, do some reflecting to find a project that you can throw yourself into. Even doing a little winter de-cluttering can be good for the soul. Make sure the project is challenging enough to enthrall you but easy enough that you stick with it and build your feelings of competence.
Ask for help. When should you seek professional help? It is considered normal to experience days when you feel down. However, if you and or someone close to you start to notice a seasonal pattern of feeling down for more days than not, notice a change in your eating and sleeping patterns, cannot seem to motivate yourself to do the activities you normally enjoy, and/ or feel hopeless or suicidal, consult your doctor about a referral to a mental health care provider.
“What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.” ? Rumi
American Academy of Family Physicians. (2012). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder.html
American Psychological Association. (Interviewer) & Rohan, K. (Interviewee). (2013). Seasonal Affective Disorder Sufferers Have More Than Just Winter Blues [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from American Psychological Association website: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/02/seasonal-disorder.aspx
Borchard, T. (2012). 10 Winter Depression Busters for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from Psych Central website: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/12/30/10-winter-depression-busters-for-seasonal-affective-disorder/
Downs, M. (2002). Winter Darkness, Season Depression. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/seasonal-affective-disorder
Rossman, J. (2009). Mind-Body-Mood advisor: How to lighten seasonal depression. Retrieved from http://www.rodalenews.com/seasonal-depression?page=0,1 Sullivan, M. J., Reesor, K, Mikail, S., & Fisher, R. (1992). The treatment of depression in chronic low back pain: Review and recommendations. Pain, 50(1), 5-13
Posted by Christine M. Douglas
Harden Jackson Law www.hardenjacksonlaw.com