Seasonal Depression Impacts Many People: People who live in areas where daylight hours in winter are extremely short are more likely to be impacted by seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 10-20% of people in America feel more depressed with the onset of winter. While not all of these people meet strict diagnostic criteria for major depression, anyone who feels more depressed or “down in the dumps” in the winter months will benefit from taking steps to address the problem.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder? The symptoms for seasonal depression are exactly the same as those for major depression. As the name implies, the only difference with seasonal affective disorder is that the symptoms begin at roughly the same month for one or more consecutive years. Common symptoms include:
• persistently sad or irritable mood ( 2 or more consecutive weeks)
• pronounced changes in sleep, appetite, and energy
• difficulty thinking, concentrating, and remembering
• lack of interest in or pleasure from activities that were once enjoyed
• feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and emptiness
• recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
• persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Caused by Lack of Sunlight? While many researchers have studies the cause, or causes, of seasonal affective disorder, the exact relationship between sunlight and depression is not clear. Like most psychiatric illnesses, the reasons depression impacts some people and not others appear to be complex. For example, we know that people often change their activity patterns during winter. You may find that you exercise less, visit friends less, or have other health problems that become worse in winter. All of these factors can influence your mood and contribute to depression.
What Treatments are Available for Seasonal Depression? Just because you feel more depressed with the onset of the winter months, doesn’t mean you just have to sit and take it! There are lots of steps you can take to improve your mood, whether you have a mild case of the “blahs” or more severe levels of depression. These include:
• Find a way to get out and get going: Staying with your exercise routine, starting a new routine, or finding interesting activities that don’t depend on warm weather is very important. You may have to get creative, or take a bit of extra time. But, staying put in your home often increases your depression.
• Exposure to Light: Taking advantage of natural sunlight is important. It may sound odd, but make sure you get outside on sunny days. Some people treat seasonal depression by sitting under bright fluorescent lamps for 30 or more minutes a day.
• Get a thorough medical evaluation: Sometimes depression can be caused by another medical problem, like abnormal thyroid activity. If you are more depressed and haven’t seen your primary care doctor, calling for a visit may be an important first step.
• Talk to a psychologist or other mental health professional: For both mild and more severe seasonal depression, talk therapy produces great benefits. Often our own patterns of thinking keep the depression going longer than needed. Counseling can help identify and change unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving.
• Medication: Some anti-depressant medications, such as Wellbutrin XL, have been FDA approved for treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Your psychiatrist or primary care doctor can discuss a range of medical treatment options.