Do the short, grey days leave you feeling depressed, tired, and unmotivated? You may have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or Seasonal Depression. Over half a million people in the US experience seasonal depression, and women are more likely to suffer. New research sheds more light on this experience.
I am writing this from frigid Central Ohio, where the temperature is currently -6.
No, not wind chill, actual temperature! But what we are going to talk about actually has nothing to do with bitter cold; it has to do with the grey days and lack of light in areas far away from the equator. This particular frigid morning is bright and sunny, with the sunshine sparking on the snow. If you suffer from seasonal depression, this would be a good time to go sit by a window and keep reading!
Seasonal depression is a form of major depression that occurs only during certain times of year. Although it occasionally can show up in the summer, for most people it occurs during the long, grey days of winter.
Is it real?
Research about seasonal depression has been inconsistent, with some studies strongly linking it to latitude or Vitamin D, and others concluding that it doesn’t actually exist.
However, if you have spent much time talking with people who live in northern latitudes in winter, you know that the winter blues are VERY real, and can often become serious enough to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of depression.
The Cleveland Clinic states that “approximately half a million people in the United States suffer from winter seasonal depression, while 10 to 20% may suffer from a more mild form of winter blues”.
A promising new study presented at the Society for Neuroscience Meeting in November 2018 suggests that “the culprit is a brain circuit that connects special light-sensing cells in the retina with brain areas that affect whether you are happy or sad. When these cells detect shorter days, they appear to use this pathway to send signals to the brain that can make a person feel glum or even depressed.” This proves what scientists and mental health experts have said for years, that seasonal depression is caused by a lack of sufficient light coming into the retina to allow the brain to produce serotonin. Now, more information is available about exactly how this process takes place in the brain.
A link to eye color
Interestingly, another recent study showed that people with darker eyes tend to suffer more from seasonal mood disturbances because dark-eyed people produce more melatonin, which contributes to feelings of fatigue and lack of energy. .
With the publication of the DSM-V, the diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder is now known as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. The key to diagnosis is that these symptoms are significant enough to affect one’s ability to function in life: for example, struggling with work or school, or socially isolating.
Symptoms of Major Depression with Seasonal Pattern:
- Sadness or depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite; eating more or less than usual (especially carbs)
- Change in sleep; sleeping too much or insomnia
- Loss of energy/ fatigue
- Movements either slowed or restless
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
What you can do about it
Talk it out: As with any type of depression, talking it through with a therapist is an effective way to reduce symptoms and feel better.
Get more light in your life: Many find relief by increasing exposure to sunlight. This could be as simple as sitting by the window or taking a walk on a sunny day. If this doesn’t do the trick, broad-spectrum light boxes are readily available online.
Get moving: I know, I know, I’m like a broken record (especially for someone who struggles to exercise consistently myself). But the science is clear, for mild-moderate depression, exercise is proven to be one of the most effective cures. Aim to get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes, 3-5x a week.
Call your doctor: If these ideas don’t help, talk to your doctor about the possibility of medication or supplements to help you start feeling better.
Have you found any other tools for helping you fight off the winter blues? If so, please share in the comments! Stay warm out there.
Read more about seasonal depression here.