While we all feel blue every once in a while, winter is a particularly challenging time for some. "Seasonal Affective Disorder" (SAD), popularly known as "Winter Depression," is a form of clinical depression exacerbated due to the lack of available sunlight. SAD affects about 2 to 8 percent of the population, particularly women and children, while a milder variation of the disorder may affect as many as 10 to 20 percent of people. Yet most dismiss it as 'laziness' due to a lack of mental health awareness. But years of medical research suggests winter blues go far beyond your average ‘moodiness’. If neglected, it can take a heavy toll on the sleep cycle, appetite, school/career, relationships, and even physical fitness.
If you find yourself feeling down around the winter months, it may be more than just laziness. Increased anxiety and marked increase in sleep, irritability, social withdrawal and a significant fatigue during the day are a few symptoms to look out for, according to Charmain F. Jackman, Ph.D., who is the founder & CEO of InnoPsych - a directory for therapists of color. Other symptoms are increased appetite, loss of interest in hobbies and pleasurable activities as well as a decrease in the sex drive.
“Individuals with SAD report marked changes in their ability to accomplish tasks due to fatigue and difficulty with focus and attention,” Dr. Jackman explains. If you just can’t focus during winter, it may be a warning sign. Concentration problems and a general lessening of willpower make it hard to stay focused on tasks, especially if they are difficult or boring. The problem is amplified for individuals with depression and ADHD as they are already facing inattention issues.
But what’s the difference between SAD and regular depression? “Given that SAD is a form of depression, the symptoms are quite similar. However, a significant distinction between major depression and SAD is that SAD symptoms tend to dissipate with the change of a new season,” Dr. Jackman says. So it is quite literally the ‘Winter Depression’.
Another difference lies in appetite changes, which in turn affects physical fitness and self-esteem. “Unlike depression, people with SAD may experience excessive food cravings for foods high in carbohydrates,” Dr. Jackman adds. “As a result, they may experience weight gain.” This may create problems for individuals with eating disorders and body image issues.
The diagnostic process is also different for SAD and clinical depression. Clinical depression can be diagnosed if the symptoms are present for 2 or more weeks but mental health providers need to document a pattern of symptoms for 2 years in order to diagnose SAD.
How the pandemic is affecting SAD
During the pandemic, our stress levels hit the roof. This, along with the limited opportunity for soaking in the sunlight (an effective treatment for SAD), has (and may continue to) worsened the situation for people affected by SAD.
“The pandemic led to months of social distancing and isolation and increased stress related to employment and the economy - both of which are risk factors for depression and SAD," Health.com reported. “Continued (and in some cases stricter) stay-at-home measures will further limit the little light people do absorb when they go outside in the colder months. That will make it even harder for stressed-out brains to produce the necessary amount of serotonin to avoid falling into a depression”.
The pandemic has also made it harder to get a diagnosis. “It may be more difficult to accurately diagnose SAD because of the conditions. For example, due to the quarantine mandate, it may be hard for a mental health or medical professional to assess whether the social isolation is due to quarantine or associated with a symptom of SAD,” Dr. Jackman says.
What you can do to manage symptoms of SAD during the lockdown
If the laws in your state prohibit you from going outdoors, there are other options for you to consider. For example, Dr. Jackman explains that “exercise is another way to help support the individual experiencing SAD symptoms.”
A Harvard study has shown that just 4 hours of weekly exercise leads to a 17% reduction in symptoms over the long-term. “On average, about 35 additional minutes of physical activity each day may help people to reduce their risk and protect against future depression episodes” says Karmel Choi, the study’s lead author.
There are also other techniques/treatments to alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Dr. Jackman suggests:
1. Use a Light Therapy lamp: The use of daily light therapy during the winter season is recommended to treat SAD. This is a great alternative during the pandemic, especially if your exposure to natural light is limited
2. Make small lifestyle tweaks: Rearrange your home and/or office furniture for maximum daylight exposure.
3. Get more Vitamin D: Much of the population is said to have low Vitamin D levels, due to low exposures to sunlight, especially during the winter. Vitamin D helps with the production of melatonin, which can help to regulate sleep.
4. Treatment approaches: Treatment approaches include light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy, particularly, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT). Other behavioral approaches such as nutrition, exercise, and eliminating alcohol and drugs can help with symptom relief.
January and February are noted to be the most difficult months for people with SAD, so following some of the steps above can help to minimise the impact. However, please consult with your medical provider to rule out any other medical concerns and to gain their advice about whether these options would be right for you.
Written by Sakshi Udavant