Are you a snow bunny anxiously awaiting the start of the winter season or would you prefer going into hibernation mode until longer days and warmer temperatures return?
It has been estimated that twenty percent of the populations suffers some form of winter blues before the return of longer daylight hours. For many individuals, fall and winter signal the beginning of depression and lethargy that extends beyond the usual winter blues or cabin fever most of us get sometime during the season.
Seasonal depression is also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). If you find yourself struggling with a case of ‘winter blues’ that seriously affects your day to day energy levels and activities, you could be one of the estimated half a million people dealing with SAD.
Signs of winter depression begin to appear as the days become shorter between September and April reaching a peak during December, January and February. You are most likely experiencing SAD if you find yourself irritable, moody, and depressed every year as the days begin to shorten.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can vary in degree or intensity, but generally include several of the following symptoms.
• Depression – lasting longer than a week and/ or interfering with daily activities.
• Hopelessness or apathy -feeling nothing you do will make a difference
• Anxiety – General anxiety and restlessness
• Loss of energy -not able to take part or enjoy your usual activities
• Social withdrawal – distancing yourself from usual activities with family and friends
• Difficulty concentrating or processing information – simply tasks seem to take ‘too much’ effort to focus on.
• Increased cravings for foods high in carbohydrates, candies, sugars, snack foods with noticeable weight gain
Who is at Risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Exactly what causes SAD is unknown. There are many theories that suggest several factors may combine to increase the risk of Sad in some people. These factors may include your own genetic makeup, age, gender and even environment.
• Gender – Females are at higher risk of seasonal depression, but when men are affected, they will show more severe symptoms and be less likely to seek treatment.
• Location – Since SAD seems to be triggered by the decreased daylight availability, those living further north or south of the equator are more likely to experience symptoms.
• Family history – If you or other family members have a history of depression, you are more likely to suffer from seasonal depression. Seasonal depression may also complicate diagnosis of chronic depression.
It is important that you seek treatment for seasonal depression. Left untreated it can lead to complications or become severe. Left untreated ‘the winter blues’ you are experiencing could lead to suicide, alcohol or substance abuse or problems at school or at work.
Light Therapy and Other Treatments for SAD
Light therapy is a huge help to many people suffering from seasonal depression. With light therapy you sit under or near a special light that mimics outdoor daylight. It is believed that the light causes changes in the brain chemicals helping to reset your biological clock and restore mood.
Though the cold temperatures during winter months offer a good excuse to stay indoors, many people find getting outdoors first thing in the morning and being exposed to natural daylight as much as possible also improves or lessens their symptoms.
Medications and therapy may be recommended if your symptoms are severe and unresponsive to light therapy. Early diagnosis and treatment is need because it is often a case of trial and error to find a treatment combination that works.
Medications such as antidepressants also take several weeks to see the full benefits of treatments. Medications often need to be adjusted or changed before finding one best suited for your individual case.
Alternative Treatment Options for Seasonal Depression
It often requires a combination of options to find the best plan for treating seasonal depression. You can do things on your own that will support the recommendations from your doctor.
Lighten up! Open the curtains and shades. Trim any overgrown bushes or trees that prevent sunlight from coming indoors. Move your desk near a sunny window if at all possible.
Get out and walk. Daylight and fresh air really does make a difference in your moods. To re-set your biological clock, try getting outdoors for a couple hours in the mornings as much as possible to take advantage of the most daylight. Just remember to bundle and stay active. Extra exercise also will help combat the sluggish feeling that often comes along with seasonal depression and it will help fight the unwanted weight gains.
Plan a trip. Find a sunny vacation spot and get away with family and friends, or go alone and meet new people. The change in scenery and the chance to get away can go a long way in fighting depression.
Socialize with others. Even though it may be the last thing you feel like doing. Getting together with others gives you an opportunity to share feelings, find support, and get your mind off your situation.
Yoga, meditation, or massage therapy can also help relieve stress and handle negative thought patterns caused by depression.
Supplements for Treating Seasonal Depression
There are conflicting studies regarding the effectiveness of supplements in treating depression. While supplements may help, in severe cases other treatment may still be needed.
Supplements found to be useful include melatonin, omega3-fatty acids, vitamin D and vitamin B complex.
It is important that you don’t begin taking any supplements without consulting your doctor if you are already being treated for depression or taking prescription medications for any other conditions. Supplements may react badly with prescriptions you are taking, or make them ineffective.
It may not be possible to avoid seasonal depression completely. With early diagnosis, treatment and a plan supported by your doctor, family and friends, it is possible to minimize the severe changes that could cause problems if left untreated.
Seasonal Affective Disorder: SAD, Mayo Clinic-online. Retrieved at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195