SAD Winter Blues

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is when depression worsens with changing seasons. 10%-20% of depression sufferers are affected in this way. It is not yet fully understood how these changes affect mental health but most theories involve sleep patterns, thyroid levels, and melatonin – a chemical released in the body to signal sleepiness. 

SAD has been around as long as the weather. In fact it was recorded as long ago as 300 B.C.E.

Florida is not the place one expects to develop this disorder. We have practically one season: hot. There are “chilly” days from November-March but those cool patches last about 48 hours at a time.

Indeed Miami has less SAD patients than northern cities. However, winter’s darker evenings and (slightly) cooling temperatures still aggravate some peoples’ depression. Not to mention it brings the holidays which, as they relate to mental health, warrant their own blog post.

Winter aside, tropical cities can be a reminder of SAD’s warmer version. Miami’s blazing summer months could trigger the disorder for anyone susceptible  – as rare as it may be during this time.

It was Miami’s brief winter, though, that got me. My teenaged self already suffered from depression. In late August the thrill of freedom fell away and school took over. From there I trended downhill. The last thing my mind needed was for the sun to disappear right after class. Plus the cold irritated my sinusitis. Before I knew it, it was SAD time for me. I felt the same way our weather did. Cold and dreary. I overcame my disorder but this time of year brings reminders of those morose days. 

Symptoms for both winter and summer SAD are similar. In fact SAD is not separate from general depression so symptoms are largely the same. A constant dreary mood, loss of interest in beloved activities, weight problems, sleep problems, lack of energy, etc. are the main villains. Only in this case they get stronger when seasons change.

Symptoms occasionally diverge depending on the season, for example increased appetite for winter and decreased appetite for summer. Still, all these variances exist in general depression.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the current standard treatment for SAD. Most available psychologists are skilled in this treatment. Sometimes, as in other severe cases of depression, SSRI’s or other medications are required.

The perfect treatment for SAD is yet to be discovered. Some researchers have explored bright light, as it dampens melatonin and can even act as a stimulant. In fact there are lamps available to treat winter SAD. Studies in Norway – where in some towns the sun disappears all winter – have supported the effectiveness of light therapy. This is important, of course, only if lack of sunlight is the main cause for an individual. In this case a simple Vitamin D supplement may help as well. Other ways to combat SAD are commonsense depression remedies like 30 minutes of daily exercise and eating nutritious food.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to halt the seasons. Right now ’tis the season to be jolly but some of us aren’t. It’s important for SAD sufferers to remember that like all forms of depression, SAD is highly treatable and there is hope. We can successfully fortify our mental health against the winter doldrums.

Note: For assistance with behavioral health issues, contact us at 305-740-3340 or schedule an appointment with BregmanMD.

References:

Geddes, Linda (2017, March) Will Norway Ever Beat the Winter Blues? The Atlantic. Retrieved on December 8, 2018 from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/03/seasonal-affective-disorder-mosaic/519495/

National Institute of Mental Health (2016, March) Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved on December 11, 2018 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml#part_152433

WebMD (2018, April) Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Retrieved on December 8, 2018 from https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/seasonal-affective-disorder#1-4