Mind Matters, by Jeannette Kennedy
Living with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Okay, seriously, this winter has gone on long enough! It’s near the end of February and I think we have had more snow this year than the last four years combined.
As long as I can remember, spring and summer have been my favorite times of year. I start to feel more vibrant and alive when the days get a bit longer. I hear the birds chirping and signs of spring are in the air.
During the winter months my energy level goes down, I feel more tired and, if I could, I would likely go into hibernation. Currently, being in the depths of winter, I suspect a lot of us are experiencing a touch of the winter “blahs,” also known as subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder (meaning it does not meet full diagnostic criteria, but we are not our normal happy-go-lucky selves).
However, there are some who are at increased risk this time of year, experiencing a deeper depression commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Diagnostically, it’s now referred to as a Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern. There are varying prevalence rates reported in North America, ranging from 1.5 to 10 per cent. The further north you go, the higher the percentage of those affected.
This is a relatively new diagnosis. In the early 1980s, psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal was the first person to name Seasonal Affective Disorder based on his own decline in mood during the winter months. Initially his theory was disregarded, but now seasonal depression is recognized as a disorder. There appears to be a specific cluster of symptoms tied to seasonal affective disorder, such as an increased need for sleep, increased appetite, craving carbohydrates and sweets and weight gain. As well, other symptoms typical of Major Depression may be present: insomnia, irritability, social withdrawal, decreased libido, feelings of hopelessness and even suicidal ideation.
Why does this happen? During the winter months there are less sunny days, the days are shorter, activity tends to decrease due to the frigid temperatures and less than optimal weather, and we stay indoors (unless you’re someone who loves the ski hills or other outdoor winter activities). As such, the decrease of exposure to sunlight is a major contributing factor; hence, the higher rates for those further north. The lack of sunlight is presumed to impact melatonin and serotonin levels, thus impacting our mood. Those predisposed to Major Depressive Disorder have an elevated risk.
Treatment recommendations include increased exercise (especially outdoor activities, but remember to bundle up!), healthy eating, light therapy (also known as SAD lamps; they should be named happy lamps) or medications. Cognitive-behaviour therapy may also be required, specifically behaviour activation strategies in the throes of depression.
Early intervention is preferable as a preventative measure, meaning you can start strategies before winter sets in.
It’s also important to note that some individuals experience Seasonal Affective Disorder in the summer rather than the winter, as they find summer conditions aversive.