Many of us might say that being less active in the winter is the normal cycle of life. A less peppy mood may be typical in this season, but for some people, cold weather and lack of sunshine bring on more than the usual winter blahs. It can bring on a form of clinical depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
If you live in a northern region, where skies are normally gray from October to March, it’s not uncommon for a lack of sunshine to make you feel depressed. Research has proved that brain chemistry is affected by bright light, although the exact process is not clear. Less than 1% of the population in sunny Florida report symptoms of SAD, yet about 10% of Alaskans report severe winter depression. It is a real illness that affects as many as 6 out of 100 people in the U.S. Even 10 to 20% more people may experience a milder form of SAD. It’s more common in women and usually first appears in one’s 20s. People with SAD typically feel better when spring comes, and then experience symptoms again in the late fall.
In general, we tend to eat and sleep more in the winter and experience more ups and downs during the shorter days. Winter may bring about weight gain and a lack of energy for people in general, but symptoms are more serious for SAD sufferers. The list below gives a range of symptoms that are clues to whether you have SAD. Not everyone who suffers from it experiences the same symptoms.
Cravings for sweets and starchy foods
Heavy feeling in the arms or legs
Noticeable drop in energy
Tendency to oversleep
Difficulty concentrating at work and at home
Increased sensitivity to social rejection
Avoidance of social situations
Hopelessness (including suicidal thoughts)
Constant agitation and anxiety
There ARE ways to treat SAD. A popular method is light therapy, where patients start with 30-45 minutes of daily treatment in front of special bright fluorescent lights and then gradually reduce this duration on a weekly basis. The intensity of light equals about the same that you might see when looking out the window on a sunny day. People with SAD have reported great relief from this type of treatment. Other treatments involve prescribed antidepressants with physician supervision.
If you think you might have SAD, learn as much as you can about it. Stay aware of your symptoms so that you can take action to get better. Find a health professional who is qualified to treat SAD and discuss treatments that are most appropriate for your individual needs.