by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
February, even during a Leap Year, remains the shortest month on our calendars. However, from a psychological standpoint, February is the longest month of the year. Leafless trees, barren landscapes, minimal sunlight, and frigid temperatures can wear you down. For some, these environmental factors may produce symptoms of mild depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that impacts a person during the same season each year. If you feel depressed in the winter, but your mood and affect improve during the spring and summer months, you may have SAD.
SAD is quite common and can affect anyone, but it is more prevalent in women between the ages of 15 and 60. Anyone who lives in a climate with extended winter months where daylight is at a premium is at risk to develop symptoms associated with SAD. However, first onset symptoms are less likely to occur as you age. In other words, If you don’t experience SAD symptoms before the age of 40 you are unlikely to develop symptoms later in life. Keep in mind, SAD is a type of depression and should not be confused with mild or moderate depression.
As with most psychiatric/psychological “disorders” there is no smoking gun to indicate a root cause for SAD. The one apparent link that appears to be most prevalent is lack of sunlight. Additionally, lack of natural lighting may disturb your sleep-wake cycle and other circadian rhythms. Moreover, lack of sunlight may account for a drop in the brain chemical, serotonin, which is linked to mood.
Some of the symptoms you may experience with SAD include a loss of interest in activities you normally find enjoyable, craving foods high in carbohydrates, such as pasta or bread, weight gain, feelings of sadness, irritability, constant worry, and drowsiness even after a full night’s sleep. Treatment may involve light therapy. Light therapy works very well for most people diagnosed with SAD, and it is easy to use. Typically, individuals report feeling improvements to mood within two weeks of starting light therapy. Like any other treatment, you must be consistent and use the therapy on a daily basis. Otherwise, results will not be as effective. Antidepressants can be used, but should be the last line of defense. In clinical trials, some SSRIs have demonstrated a positive impact the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, be sure you take them as prescribed. Never stop taking them because you feel better. This could cause side effects or make your depression worse. Always consult your doctor so she can help you slowly reduce the dose slowly over time to reduce negative side effects.
Talk therapy or counseling has proven just as effective as medications in treating SAD. Therapy will help you explore root causes of your feelings and assist with managing symptoms. Stay active during the daytime, especially in the morning, by exercising at a moderate level. Walking, swimming, aerobics, deep breathing, and yoga are a great way to start. Stay hydrated, drink at least six to eight glasses of water each day. The more you do, the more energy you will gain. In addition to physical activity, appeal to your creative spirit by journaling, drawing or finding some artistic endeavor. If you feel as though you are experiencing symptoms of SAD or depression, please consult a therapist or physician.
In good health,