Winter Blues?

By Jodi Pinn, Ph.D.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Have you experienced significant mood change that reappears in the autumn and lasts until spring?  For generations people have described the “winter blues” phenomenon.

For these folks the onset of winter, with its darker skies, fewer daylight hours and colder temperatures that force us indoors, goes hand in hand with depression.

This depression, termed Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is similar to regular depression and can be treated.

Symptoms

Like other forms of depression, SAD is more common in women than in men, and occurs more often in families where relatives have psychiatric illness, especially severe depression. People who live in places with long winter nights are at greater risk for SAD. Symptoms usually come on slowly in the late autumn months.

Typical symptoms of winter SAD include oversleeping (too little sleep is more common with other forms of depression), daytime fatigue, and increased appetite and weight gain (decreased appetite and weight loss is common in other depressions).

Additionally, there are the usual features of depression: hopelessness, unhappiness and crying, less energy, trouble concentrating, loss of interest in work or other activities, trouble making decisions, slowed movement, social withdrawal, decreased sexual interest, and suicidal thoughts. The SAD depression is usually mild to moderate, but can be severe.

Very few patients with SAD require hospitalization. You may have some of the symptoms noted here, but never experience others.  Diagnosis is made on an individual basis.

How do I find out if I have SAD?

There is no single test for SAD. However, a licensed clinical psychologist can perform an evaluation and make a diagnosis based on your history and symptoms.  Often a psychologist will work in conjunction with a primary care provider so that a physical exam and blood tests can rule out other disorders that are similar to SAD.

Treatment

As with other types of depression, antidepressant medications and talk therapy can be effective. Light therapy using a special lamp that mimics sunlight may also be helpful.  Exposure to the lamp early in the day is recommended, since the light is thought to jumpstart your circadian rhythm.  Some people find combined therapy lamps and alarm clocks most helpful and practical.

These units produce gradually increasing amounts of light, giving the individual the experience of being awakened by “sunlight”.  Once you have been diagnosed with SAD, light therapy can be started during the fall or early winter, before the symptoms of SAD strike.

In addition, behavioral changes to complement your other therapy or therapies (medication, talk, light therapy) are recommended. These include:

  • Adequate sleep.
  • Healthy diet.
  • Regular, enjoyable exercise.
  • Avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs, which can increase depression.
  • Social interaction (talking with friends, volunteering, etc.)

What should I do if I think I have SAD?

If your depressive symptoms are affecting your daily life, consult a licensed clinical psychologist who can help you find the most appropriate treatment for you.

Neuropsychological Assessment Group provides neuropsychological testing for mood disorders including SAD. For more information or a confidential consultation call 877-454-6469 today.