With colder temperatures and sunsets before 5 p.m., winter can lead to many people feeling less energetic and maybe even a little anxious. For some, these symptoms become severe.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that was first recognized by health professionals in the 1980s, said Jim Jones. He is a a licensed clinical social worker with Pathways.
“The symptoms of SAD start in the fall and pick up as the amount of daily sunlight decreases,” he said. “With less sunlight, you have less changes in the body; less energy. You go into more of a low-energy lifestyle. Because of that, we end up with lot of people who are depressed.”
Everyone slows down to some degree during the winter season, Jones said. But part of the population will suffer enough to be clinically depressed and need clinical treatment.
Some of the symptoms of SAD include either a lack of sleep or sleeping all the time, anxiety, irritability, weight loss or gain, withdrawal from friends and difficulties maintaining a job.
“A lot of these are symptoms we see with major depression,” he said. “In the worst case, it can lead to thoughts of suicide. The way doctors diagnose it is to look for someone who has suffered at least two years in a row and only during certain seasons.”
Sometimes depression can slowly get worse over time, and sometimes people can get better because they learn how to manage things better, Jones said.
Medication is one way to battle the seasonal blues, experts say.
April Downing is an advance-practice nurse and board-certified family practice nurse with Regional Medical Associates. She said as with other types of depression, antidepressant medications and counseling are effective.
“It may take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant. Also, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects,” she said.
There are other ways to improve symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder, like exercise and taking long walks during the daylight hours, Downing said.
“Make your home and work environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds or windows, or add skylights to your home,” she said. “Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office. Keep active socially with friends and family, even if it involves extra effort.”
With no treatment, symptoms usually will resolve on their own with the change of seasons. However, they will resolve more quickly with treatment, Downing said.
“Some people have SAD throughout their lives. People who have repeated seasonal depression should talk to their health care provider about prevention methods,” she said. “Starting treatment during the fall or early winter may be helpful, before the symptoms begin to manifest.”
Jones, who is not a medical doctor, said the use of light as part of treatment is common. Psychiatrists can prescribe anything from medication to other types of treatments.
“The use of light seems to decrease symptoms in people,” he said. “A high percentage improve by light therapy, but a lot of people don’t continue with it because you have to sit somewhere for 30 to 60 minutes. People with busy schedules can’t or don’t follow through. Some also look for medication — we make a referral to a psychiatrist to talk about medication.”
In addition to light therapy and antidepressants — cognitive behavioral therapy can also help. Behavioral therapy educates clients and identifies positive thought processes of thought. Jones calls it “restructuring what we think.”
Jones warned that just because someone ends up with low energy during the wintertime, that doesn’t indicate SAD. A true diagnosis would require a majority of the symptoms, and the disorder has to affect a person’s normal life, he said.
His recommendation for those questioning whether they suffer from SAD is to talk with a doctor, counselor or a psychiatrist who could give some guidance.