As we head into fall, grey clouds are already looming and daylight hours are getting progressively shorter, signifying that winter is just around the corner. While most of us have made a mental note that our summer sunshine is being replaced with overcast skies and blistery weather, some of us have started to dread the gloomy feelings that winter brings. Are the winter blues simply an old wives’ tale, or is there validity to this seemingly seasonal funk?
Are “winter blues” a real thing?
The funk is real! Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a legitimate medical diagnosis. Over the years, I have treated countless patients who struggle with seasonal mood disorders. Although the mechanism behind SAD is not fully understood, researchers believe that altered serotonin levels (a mood influencing chemical found in the brain) play a significant role in SAD. In some people, the lack of sunlight that fall and winter bring can decrease serotonin levels and function.
How can a decrease in daylight have such a profound effect on serotonin and mood?
According to local Hamilton County clinical psychologist, Dr. Angie Beachkofsky, not everyone processes light in the same way. Those who struggle with a seasonally depressed mood, the majority being women, may actually process light inefficiently through their eyes. This poor processing may result in ineffective serotonin reactions creating SAD or glum feelings during the winter.
How can you tell if you suffer from SAD?
In addition to feeling down during the late fall and winter months, according to the DSM Psychiatry Guidelines, you may also experience atypical symptoms of depression such as an increased need for sleep, increased appetite with cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain, irritability, interpersonal difficulties and even a heavy feeling in your arms or legs. If these symptoms become so severe that they are affecting your ability to function at work or home, then it is definitely time to seek help.
Does treatment exist for SAD?
So, whether you suffer from full-blown SAD, mild winter blues or you are simply a holiday Scrooge, take the time to focus on your mental health. Talk with your local health care professional about ways to improve your mood this fall and winter. You may be surprised to find that winter can be your favorite season after all!
Dr. Emma Hostetter is a Fishers family physician and public health specialist. Find her blog “The Mom in Me, MD” on the Hamilton County Family web site or visit her at www.themominmemd.com.
For more information on depression and seasonal affective disorder, visit the Mayo Clinic web site at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/definition/con-20021047 or the National Institute of Mental Health web site at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml.
You don’t have to muddle helplessly through your seasonal slump each year. Several effective treatment options do exist to address SAD. According to Dr. Beachkofsky, the most effective results are seen when these treatment options are used in combination. Light Therapy, where the patient is exposed to a light box for a set time each day can be effective for many SAD patients. Starting seasonal anti-depressants several weeks before symptoms typically appear can also prevent and control the depressive symptoms related to SAD. A final treatment option, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may offer the best long-term results. In this type of psychotherapy, patients develop skills to help them mindfully cope with the winter months.
What if you don’t have full-blown SAD but you feel a little blue during the winter?
While many of us don’t suffer from full-blown depression during the winter months, we shouldn’t ignore our glum mood. Although our mood may not impact our overall ability to function, it may be preventing us from thriving during the winter. Dr. Beachkofsky recommends that those of us in the Bah Humbug category could benefit significantly from Dialectical Therapy (DT). She describes DT as a therapy that “teaches mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal skills and distress tolerance.” These are skills that can benefit everyone…even in the summer months!