For some of us winters are a sad time. Literally! Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a condition that surfaces when the chill sets in and the sun loses its sheen. It is more commonly known as winter depression, seasonal depression or whimsically the winter blues. The phase is actually a mood disorder for some people who enjoy absolutely normal mental health otherwise. But come winters and they begin to exhibit symptoms of depression.
This distinctive mood disorder recurs like clockwork in colder months for persons affected by the syndrome. They are usually in great condition for the rest of the year. Recognized as a specific disorder, this condition was earlier overlooked due to uncertainty and doubts. But now SAD is identified as a major depressive disorder. People suffering from it exhibit feelings of hopelessness, disinterest and withdrawal from social interaction. Sleep patterns and eating habits get affected making them feel lethargic and agitated.
It is normal for SAD people to over-sleep, over-eat or not eat at all. Waking up in the morning is difficult and they may experience a craving for carbohydrates. However every individual case may be different but insomnia and weight gain or conversely weight loss appears to add to their anxiety. Very often listlessness sweeps down making them averse to activity. The reduction of sunlight also adds to their difficulties to deal with themselves in the cold weather.
Some of us tend to feel low during the winter months but not all of us may be affected by SAD. It is believed that SAD is related to a lack of serotonin that plays its part in the disruptive malady. Serotonin in the brain regulates anxiety, happiness, and mood. Low levels of the chemical are associated with depression-like behavior. Another view is that lack of melatonin production in dim winter light affects the body’s control over the inherent circadian clock resulting in a slowdown or disturbed psyches.
People susceptible to SAD may therefore suffer from personality related afflictions. Correlations have been found between winter depression and personality traits like neuroticism, inability to cope and avoidance of normal living. Winter blues are now clearly associated with these four specific patterns:
- Depressive episodes occurring at a particular time of year.
- Remissions or mania/hypomania at the same characteristic time year.
- Patterns last beyond couple of years with no non-seasonal depressive episodes.
- Seasonal depressive episodes outnumber other depressive episodes in a lifetime.
Cloud cover contributes to negative effects of SAD. Seasonal mood variations related to light or rather lack of light are effectively rectified by using bright-light therapy. With clear evidence that SAD patients are affected by delay in their circadian rhythm, bright light treatment corrects such conditions. Also, winter blues may not have people feeling terribly depressed but perhaps simply experiencing lack of energy in performing everyday activities. Such blue feelings can be extinguished by exercise and increased outdoor activity.
People need to take advantage of sunny days to improve their mood and energy levels. When the sun is not out then indoor bright-light therapy can be made use of. Light therapy can also consist of exposure to sunlight by spending more time outside when the sun is out. For more troubled patients antidepressants are effective. Depending on the patient’s condition light treatment or anti-depressants may be used alternately to improve the disorder.
In winters people also suffer from low vitamin D levels as they do not get enough ultraviolet-B on their skin. An alternative to using bright lights is to take vitamin D supplements. However, studies do not show a link between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms. Physical exercise is effective for containing depression. Patients exposed to exercise along with bright light therapy whether natural or otherwise seem to make quick recovery. So chalk out your winter exercise schedule outdoors or indoors in brightly lit gyms and see your blues disappear.