Do you feel sad and depressed as the daylight hours decrease and it starts to get colder? It might not just be a longing for summer. You might have Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) – also called winter depression or winter blues – a mood disorder affecting people during the dreary winter months.
“I begin to see people who are not very depressed become more depressed, and people who aren’t depressed become depressed,” said Mary Lyons, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Biddeford.
Kimberly Comparetto, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, said too little sunlight this time of year also means too much melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating our internal body clock. When sunlight hits our retinas it stops the production of melatonin. Too much melatonin, she said, is believed to be behind the symptoms such as lack of energy, changes in appetite, and feelings of sadness found in people who suffer from SAD, which she said is very close to depression.
“The difference is in the spring when you have more hours of daylight, the symptoms start to go away,” said Comparetto.
However, just because it’s temporary doesn’t mean it’s not serious. Some sufferers may even need to be hospitalized.
“It’s a very real condition,” said Comparetto. “This is something you want to pay attention to.”
For treatment, both Comparetto and Lyons recommended bright light therapy. You can buy a light box at a medical supply stores or get a prescription, which you use for 30 to 60 minutes a day about 12 to 18 inches from light.
“Don’t stare directly into it but the light has to reach the retina,” said Comparetto. “If you do it at work, other people want to come to where that light is because it feels good. It gets you that sunlight.”
Other recommended treatments are:
• Go outside: Lyons said to try to get outside for at least half an hour a day. “Many skiers, ice fishing, people who ice fish don’t get SAD because they really like the winter,” said Lyons. “They get outside and they get light.”
• Start exercising: Go to the gym, take up yoga, or find a winter activity that you enjoy that will get you outside. If you know that you’re prone to SAD, you want to start preparing in the fall. “Any exercise will help depression,” said Comparetto. “It’s a lot easier to start the exercise habits before you’re depressed and don’t have the energy.”
• Eat healthy: You should also be careful not to eat a lot of carbohydrates and sugars, foods that people with SAD often crave.
• Be social: Go out with your friends, laugh and have fun, advises Comparetto. She said that researchers who have found that people who have one or two drinks a day are healthier than those who don’t. “It’s probably the socializing more than the beers,” said Comparetto. “It really does lift your mood and has a lasting, positive effect.”
• Boost your mood with sight and smell. Aromatherapy using scents such as peppermint, tea tree oil and rosemary can have an affect on your mood. Or combat the winter drab by surrounding yourself in bright colors, either in your home and office or by wearing colorful scarves.
“We know that winter’s going to happen, and there’s nothing we can do about that,” said Comparetto. “Find some ways to get pleasure out of the winter.”