By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of recurrent depression that occurs during the winter months where there is less sunlight throughout the day. With the season patterns varying, people who suffer from the condition often don’t feel like themselves and can have a sense of lethargic behavior and overall depression.
“We live in the north, so seasonal affective disorder and overall winter depression is something that is more prevalent here than in other areas,” said physician Mark Oldham, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “Winters can be essentially hibernation for humans and there are those who don’t take that well.”
Oldham, who has also done scholarly research in light therapy and depression, gives five facts about seasonal affective disorder — or SAD.
Signs and symptoms of SAD may include feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, having low energy and feeling sluggish and sleeping too much. In addition, people can experience carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty and having thoughts of suicide.
“You can feel detached even from friends and family,” said Oldham. “Depression can feed into your workplace and home environment. You can feel like you are not even there. With some other conditions, things can be better over the course of the day, but with SAD people tend to feel even worse and it can be extremely impairing. But the good thing is there are treatment options.”
Too often because the condition is not always recognizable to others, there are various stereotypes that have emerged. It can range from people simply calling it the “winter blues” or thinking that people should just snap out of it once they see some sunlight during the day.
“People think that this is just normal and that everyone gets depressed over the winter a little bit so sometimes it is not taken seriously when friends and family start discussing how they feel,” said Oldham. “There are people that are more sensitive to this issue and that has to be recognized.”
3. Light therapy
A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. It’s thought that this type of light may cause a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD, such as being tired most of the time and sleeping too much.
“There are a lot of people who don’t know much about light therapy and it can truly make a significant difference for something that is terribly impairing,” said Oldham. “Part of my research was doing a review on common light therapy devices that are in the open market and characterizing the nature of the light source and its potential treatment results.”
Generally, the light box should provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and produce as little UV light as possible.
“Light therapy has the same data effectiveness as some medication does. However, you should not just get a light box without consulting with a professional to understand the best one for you,” said Oldham. “There are directions such as not just simply staring directly into the light. Also you should use it at the same time every morning for about 30 minutes to reset your internal clock.”
4. Mental health
While people are talking about mental health more that doesn’t mean there aren’t still hurdles. No one is immune to mental health problems. People at all levels of social, occupational or economic status can experience a mental illness.
“There is still a stigma around mental health,” said Oldham. “We want to encourage people to have open and honest dialogue because depression is not one-size-fits-all.”
5. Seek medical help
It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if the feelings persist and motivation becomes difficult each day, experts say you shouldn’t try to handle the situation by yourself. They suggest seeking out a health care professional, especially if your sleep and eating habits have changed dramatically and you feel thoughts of suicide.
“There could be major depression occurring in a person, so overall as a society, we need to talk about mental health,” said Oldham. “Trying to treat yourself can be very problematic. If you are depressed and you don’t recognize the full aspects of your depression or how bad it is getting, then you could start forming unhealthy habits. You need to connect with someone who has a full range of treatment options that you can discuss.”
For more information on light therapy, log onto the study co-published by Oldham at https://prcp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.prcp.2019.20180011