Maybe it’s the unshakable feeling that you just want to crawl back beneath the covers and take a long nap. You know you should be getting exercise, but you don’t have any energy. You know you should be getting things done, but you just can’t get motivated. You feel like being alone instead of with people and you’re craving carbs — especially sweets — and gaining weight.
Feeling down for no good reason?
If it’s winter, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression.
The good news? As the name implies, it’s seasonal, generally affecting people between fall when daylight hours start to noticeably shrink and spring when daylight hours lengthen again.
The bad news? It’s winter — and Kittitas County is locked in winter’s dark grasp.
Symptoms “tend to be directly related to the time of the year, usually to the loss of light in the winter,” said Dr. Jeff Penick, associate professor of psychology at Central Washington University and program director of mental health counseling at CWU. “A lot of the symptoms are somatic symptoms, symptoms related to the body, like the lack of energy and sleeping more than usual.
“I summarize it as your body shutting down for winter.”
While those lucky enough not to suffer from SAD might think those who do are imagining things, “there is not really any question about whether it’s real or a myth. It’s been recognized as a diagnosis since 1984.”
Interestingly, he said, “there’s a correlation to the latitude you live in.” The farther north, or south, you get from the equator the more likely it is that you may experience SAD. Thus, it’s more likely someone living in the Northwest will have SAD than someone in, say, southern California, Penick said.
Hendrika Mather, a licensed mental health counselor in Ellensburg for 21 years who has been in private practice for 14 years, said SAD “is definitely an issue, particularly with the weather patterns we have in the Kittitas Valley. There tends to be fog or cloud patterns that sometimes seem to go on for months.
“The problem in the winter is light. There’s just not enough of it. It has to do circadian rhythms. That affects our sleep patterns. A lot of people have trouble sleeping or sleep too much.”
Other symptoms include isolation and cutting off social interaction, lack of motivation, and lack of energy. Some people experience increased irritability and don’t handle normal frustrations as well as they do at other times of the year, Mather said. Some people may find it harder to concentrate or have memory problems.
It’s no joke for those who suffer from it — and not the myth it was once considered to be, said Penick.
Mather calls it “absolutely, totally real.”
The good news is there is treatment.
“Sunlight is great,” Penick and Mather both say.
But sunlight is in short supply these days.
What about a trip to sunnier climes? “I try to do that every year,” Mather said. But not everyone can just pack up and head to someplace sunnier. Mather advises “just getting in your car and going some place. Sometimes even driving to Yakima or a little beyond Yakima will get you blue skies you don’t have here.”
And even if you don’t find blue skies, a change of surroundings — even temporarily — can be a mood lifter.
Then there’s light therapy.
“The idea is going with what’s missing,” Penick said. “Light therapy has been shown to be quite effective. You can buy light boxes (a device you sit in front of that gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light) and use them on a regular basis.” Light therapy can be effective in preventing SAD as well as treating it, Penick said. But while effective, some patients find using the light boxes inconvenient.
Others may try a dawn simulator, a device which has been described as a silent alarm clock that wakes up the body naturally by having light in a bedroom increase gradually.
Penick said there also is research that shows that cognitive behavior therapy “can work as well or maybe even better (than light therapy) in the long run.” That isn’t a question of therapy designed to dig up the past as much as focusing on “self talk,” the messages we give ourselves.
“Are you saying positive things about yourself or are you saying negative things?” he said. “Be careful with what I call your mental hygiene. Watch out for self criticism. Avoid negative situations.”
And, to feel better and avoid weight gain, watch what you eat, he said.
“Sometimes it’s important not to listen to what your brain says because with SAD it’s easy to eat more than you should and go to bed,” Penick said.
Psychologist Robin LaDue has practiced on the West Side for years and now has a home in Cle Elum. She is opening a practice, Frontier Counseling Services, in Ellensburg, and echoes Penick and Mather.
“The issue is sunlight,” she said. “One of the good things is we get more sunlight over here than on the West Side.” Even so, that doesn’t mean Kittitas County residents don’t experience SAD.
Lack of sunlight can result in vitamin D deficiency which affects how much serotonin the body is producing.
“Physicians are now testing for vitamin D deficiency,” she says. Some are prescribing vitamin D supplements to help address the issue. “It’s one of the options physicians are considering,”she said.
While SAD is a specific form of depression — the diagnosis requires that it occur seasonally and for two or more years — people who have suffered major episodes of depression tend to be more likely to experience SAD. Penick said that women appear to experience SAD more than men. Generally, he said, women are more susceptible to mood disorders.
But Mather said in her practice “it appears that SAD is about equal between men and women.”
In some cases, SAD may be treated medically with anti-depressants during the winter months.
Mather said some people seem to benefit from tanning beds but neither she or Penick advise them. “There are other issues,” Mather said.
In certain cases, those experiencing SAD may experience suicidal thoughts.
If that happens, consult your doctor or a mental health professional or go to the emergency room, Mather said.
Penick said those interested in learning more about light therapy should be able to find information on the Internet about recommended and well reviewed “light boxes” which may be available through Internet retailers and at some drug stores.
If considering purchasing a light box, you also may want to consult your physician. Some insurance companies require a prescription for the device.
Or, if you’d rather, pack your bags as Mather suggested and simply leave the dark days behind.
“Puerto Rico,” Penick said, laughing, when asked, “would be very therapeutic.”