Seasonal affective disorder – dark days can bring on SAD days

Snuggling down with a glass of wine in front of a blazing fire on a freezing day is one of winter’s great pleasures. But going to work and coming home in the dark, feeling gloomy and less like exercising and socialising – that’s another matter.

Full-Blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression prevalent in the northern hemisphere, is rare in Australia because even on the darkest days most of us are exposed to enough light to avoid it. But winter still has an impact.

Professor Gregory Murray, who says he has become known as “the winter depression guy”, has studied its impact on our mental health. He says there is a general tendency to low-energy symptoms with some people changing their behavior dramatically and needing to fight against feeling forlorn and lethargic, as well as cravings for carbohydrates.

“It’s about fighting the tendency to slow down in winter if you are the sort of person that has a problem,” the head of Swinburne University’s psychological sciences and statistics says.

So it may be necessary to “put in some scaffolding”, to schedule exercise and social events and ensure winter does not impact on productive work and leading a full life.

Professor Murray says those likely to be most affected are prone generally to depression. For example, those who tend to go quiet when things go wrong, those extremely sensitive to their environment, may be more affected than those who don’t notice a grey day.

“Their emotions tend to be affected by their environment,” he says. “Getting a bit down in winter is not essentially to do with winter, it is about who we are.” While most of us can deal with this ourselves, the few people with full-blown seasonal affective disorder need clinical help. About one in 300 people are diagnosed, compared with one in five who may be diagnosed with depression.

These people often feel “a conscious hunger for light” and seek out sunlight. Light therapy is among the treatments, Professor Murray says.

Undertaking a large clinical study of this disorder in Australia has not been possible because of the small numbers affected. But a questionnaire-based study found a drop in mood and winter.

Professor Murray is focusing on bipolar disorder, to which many of the same principles apply because it relates to our body’s circadian mechanisms.

This disorder, with which about 3 to 4 per cent of the population could be diagnosed, can cause significant workplace issues and, because it often starts with depression, and the mania can come later.

“They sometimes get a significant episode that everyone in the workplace has to deal with,” Professor Murray says.

There is some truth in the notion that those with bipolar disorder are particularly creative and intelligent – “therefore they are very valuable to the workplace so the issue for patients is how that is managed in the workplace – do they declare it, are they going to lose their job, to what extent do I share my disability?”.

“Anecdotally, there is a high prevalence of bipolar disorder in professions such as law and banking, where qualities such as assertiveness, leadership, charisma and extraversion are highly valued,” Professor Murray says.

“These people often have great strengths; the diagnosis challenges our normal disability model.”

By Sue Green