As this time of year approaches and we become fully entrenched in the shorter days, grayer skies, and colder mornings, many of us start to feel a little down or blue.
We long for summertime… when "the livin’ is easy," as they say. We long for the days when we don’t have to bundle up to go out, and the sun is in the sky until late in the evening. I, for one, hate the cold weather — nothing is ever too hot for me. I love the summer months, and feel cranky and moody when I have to be out in the cold for even a few minutes, and I know that many people reading this feel similarly. Add to that the rush and stress of the holidays, and many people find they have mood swings at this time of year. For most of us, it is simply a period we have to get through, we know that the warmer days are not gone forever, and we can even count down to that first day of spring, if it helps. But for some people, this seasonal moodiness becomes something more difficult and sometimes unbearable. There is even a name for it: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or perhaps more appropriately, its acronym, SAD.
The typical symptoms of SAD include depression, lack of energy, increased need for sleep, a craving for sweets and weight gain. Symptoms begin in the fall, peak in the winter and usually resolve in the spring. Some individuals ultimately experience great bursts of energy and creativity in the spring or early summer. The vast majority of people diagnosed with SAD, a subtype of Major Depressive Disorder, are women, and the age of onset is usually in the 30s, although there are some cases of SAD developing in children.
Over 20 years ago a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that using bright, full-spectrum lighting with some patients with SAD was helpful in alleviating many of the symptoms. Since then, much research has been done that supports this finding. Some theories claim that the light therapy helps reset our brain’s natural clock, particularly where it affects our sleep/wake cycle. As plants and animals often respond to the changes in day length, more so than actual changes in temperature, so do we, and that daylight change can cause symptoms of depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and a general ill-feeling that interferes with daily functioning in some people.
So, since we can’t change the patterns of the sun and the seasons, how can people with SAD alleviate their symptoms so that they feel better each year during the winter months? As was found at NIMH years ago, full-spectrum lighting — light that mimics
sunlight — seems to be helpful for many patients. Usually before dawn the individual will sit beside such a lamp and read, eat breakfast, engage in hobbies, etc., while essentially adding hours to the day. By doing this, the person is setting up an artificial sunrise, or possibly, if done at night, an artificial sunset, thus enjoying more hours of daylight. This treatment seems to work best for this kind of depression, as opposed to medications and other treatments that might work better for other types. However, some people choose to go the medication route because it is more convenient.
Other options for therapy include daily walks outside, as natural sunlight provides more of the necessary light than a commercially-purchased light box, but it is often hard to get out during daylight hours due to bad weather or other factors. Despite the warmer winter we seem to be having this year, which has made it easier for a lot of people to get out in the park on weekends, I can also recall some recent years where it was brutally cold by November and many of us felt that we had barely seen the light of day for months.
If you think you might have symptoms of SAD, consult your doctor or a qualified therapist who can help determine what would be best for you. SAD is a treatable condition, and a combination of therapies can make the winter months more bearable for many people. If you don’t have full-blown depression in the winter, but find that you become more moody and unmotivated, small changes in routine and nutrition may help you to feel better until those tulips come up in the spring.
Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes owns the Sleepy Hollow Family Resource Center.