Monday, October 29, 2018

Winter Blues or Winter Ready?

snow and rain keep people inside and lack of sunlight is though to cause seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Just as the beginning chills are in the air, you may feel the winter blues settling in. Lethargic, withdrawn and irritable - do any of these feelings describe you?

I was standing outside talking with a group of women one late summer evening and we could feel the air getting chillier as the time passed. We were grabbing for sweaters and jackets to keep ourselves comfortable, when one of the women, with arms raised high, burst out “I am ready for winter! - Really I am!” Another women agreed “Me too!”, she said. Others I could tell were not in agreement but managed to generate a smile, look away and stay silent. As I age, I have seen far fewer people ready to take on the challenge of the upcoming cold season with a renewed energy. When you think about the change from winter to spring it has a much more positive effect. We start to see our neighbors outside cleaning up their gardens, cars drive by with their windows rolled down, the runners are out and about with their T-shirts and shorts. It’s relaxing feeling the vitamin D warm your face after the long winter.

In 1984 the term seasonal affective disorder was first used to classify a type of depression in which people experience depressive episodes during specific times of the year. Many years ago, when I heard a neighbor tell me she thought she had this, I didn’t think she was serious or that it even existed. Now that I have aged and I am experiencing symptoms too, I understand why it is real and the numbers prove it. Seasonal affective disorder affects as much as 1.4% of the population in Florida and up to 9.9% of people in Alaska. Overall it is estimated to affect 10 million Americans. A higher number of people in northern climates are susceptible, compared to those living in southern climates.
For some being a bit cranky and irritable and putting on some extra weight during the winter months isn’t overly terrible. However, some experience complete withdrawals from life and despair –likely caused by seasonal affective disorder or the misleading sugar-coated term – “the winter blues”.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
  1. Feeling depressed, moody most of the day
  2. Loss of interest in typical activities
  3. Overeating – craving carbohydrates
  4. Difficulty sleeping
  5. Lack of energy
  6. Trouble concentrating
  7. Withdrawing from friends and family
In a majority of cases, the symptoms appear in late fall or early winter and start to go away during
snow and rain keep people inside and lack of sunlight is though to cause seasonal affective disorder
spring and summer. SAD is 4 times more common in women than men. It is more common in people who live further from the equator where daylight hours during the winter are shorter; and most people start experiencing symptoms in their 30’s. A less common type of SAD is known as summer depression which usually beings in the late spring or early summer. About 6% of patients with SAD require hospitalization and many people who have been diagnosed with SAD have at least one close relative with a psychiatric disorder.
If you have one bad winter and bounce back, you are probably just facing the normal ups and downs of life. If you have symptoms of depression during the fall and winter months for two or more years in a row, you may want to discuss this with your doctor.
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, know that it’s not your fault. Sometimes people that don’t have depression think you can decide to be happy and do not understand that there are hormones and brain chemicals that make you feel this way. The good news is, there’s help!

Unfortunately, experts are not sure what causes this disorder. Some researchers believe it is combination of the effects of the following:
  • Increased melatonin. During the night and in periods of reduced light (as occurs in the winter), a gland in the brain produces a hormone called melatonin which makes you feel drowsy. On dull winter days, people with the condition may find it difficult to get up or may feel drowsy during the day. 
  • Decreased serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that helps to regulate mood and behavior. Sunlight seems to have an effect on serotonin levels so shorter days and longer nights may cause decreased levels of serotonin. 
  • Biological clock. Reduction in the amount of sunlight may change your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
Risk Factors
SAD occurs more in younger adults than older adults
Factors that may increase your risk:
  1. Relatives have SAD
  2. Living far from the equator which will have decreased sunlight during the winter and long days during the summer
  3. Have bipolar disorder to major depression that may worsen in the seasons if you have one of these conditions
How is SAD diagnosed?
It is sometimes tricky to determine the difference between SAD and other types of depression because the symptoms are similar. Some of the questions a doctor may ask are:
  • Do you get depressed around the same season and get better as the seasons changed?
  • Are you gaining weight or sleeping more than usual?
  • Do you have a relative with SAD?
Treatment Options
  1. Talk therapy – talking to a professional can help you identify patterns in negative thing and behavior that impact depression. A professional can also help with ways of coping with symptoms and techniques to help relax and restore your lack of energy. There a many counselling options available today, including telephone and online counselling which make getting help much more convenient and affordable.
  1. Light therapy – There are 2 different types:
    • Dawn simulation – dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep and gets brighter overtime to mimic a sunrise
  • Bright light treatment – place a light box on a desk or table and sit in front of it while you read, eat meals or work at a computer
Light boxes typically use lights that are brighter than indoor lights but not a bright as sunlight and are normally prescribed 30 minutes to 2 hours per day. It is important that you consult with a doctor first to make sure you are buying an effective and safe device as there have been complaints of retinal damage. The FDA does not approve or regulate light box devices.
  1. Medication – Antidepressants may help people with severe cases of SAD but they all come with side effects. Please consult with your doctor about the medication and its side effects if you suffer from SAD.
Self Help
  • Moderate exercise is one of the best things to do for yourself. Walking, riding a bike, or
    swimming. Get a friend to come with you to a fitness class to make it more enjoyable. 
  • Even during the winter months, go outside as much as you can. Even weak sunlight and light reflected off snow can increase your exposure to light.
    snow and rain keep people inside and lack of sunlight is though to cause seasonal affective disorder
  • You may feel like you would rather be alone but this is a slippery slope. If this is the case, make a concerted effort to see friends or family more as this will help boost your mood and keep you occupied.
  • Develop a consistent bedtime routine which includes no devices a couple of hours before bed and ensure you get plenty of sleep.
  • Arrange your house and office furniture to maximize your exposure to light.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol.
  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Ideally get 8 hours of sleep. Although sleeping in is tempting on those cold winter mornings, set an alarm to get yourself out of bed at the same time every morning. 
  • Take a holiday to the warm sunny south to eliminate symptoms of SAD.
Understand that you are not alone. You are not the first person to experience the effects of winter and you will certainly not be the last. A great resource for people experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder are the counsellors at TeleCounsel Group. Together, they can help guide and direct you with techniques to overcome the depression you are experiencing. Don’t delay – sign up today!

Healthwise staff – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Arnold Lieber, MD – Seasonal Affective Disorder
Bulletproff Staff – What to Do about the Winter Blues

References: Andrew Gordon (Speaker). (2017, December). Messages [Audio]. Retrieved from

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