Light relief from crippling seasonal blues
WINTER BLUES:What to do when seasonal affective disorder makes normal living impossible
Winter blues is midpoint on the spectrum of reactions to seasonal changes.
Most people experience some changes with the seasons – they may feel less energetic, sleep and eat a little more in winter and sometimes have low moods.
It’s when these seasonal changes disrupt your daily life – making it difficult to get to work on time (or indeed do your work) or causes more arguments with family and friends that they are described as the winter blues.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is when the symptoms – depression, changes to sleep and eating habits and energy levels – make normal living impossible. Seasonal affective disorder was first classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association in 1987.
Who does it affect and why?
SAD can affect people of all ages – children included.
The onset and duration of symptoms vary with some people noticing a slump in September while others don’t feel their mood drops until after Christmas. Similarly, some feel better by March and for others it may be April.
More people seem to be affected in the northern hemisphere where winters are longer and darker.
However, SAD also crops up as a problem for people in sunnier climes where night falls earlier and more abruptly.
SAD is believed to be caused by the increased production of brain chemical melatonin in winter months.
What can you do about it?
Light therapy, antidepressants, psychotherapy, exercise and meditation are among the treatment options for SAD and winter blues. In his book, Winter Blues, – Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder (Guilford Press, fourth edition), Dr Norman Rosenthal advises people to have other conditions including underactive thyroid, hypoglycaemia, chronic viral illness and chronic fatigue syndrome ruled out before diagnosing SAD.
He also suggests that people with milder symptoms can try to moderate the symptoms themselves while those with severe and/or chronic symptoms will need expert help.
Increasing numbers of people are turning to artificial light boxes to help alleviate seasonal blues. Rosenthal suggests light therapy works for some because it restores daily rhythm by decreasing the duration of melatonin secretion while also boosting brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
In his book, he says that light boxes are best used early in the morning for between 20 and 90 minutes depending on severity of symptoms.
Besides formal light therapy, getting outdoors on sunny winter days and having more lights and lamps in your home is also recommended.
Antidepressants and psychotherapy Many psychiatrists prescribe antidepressants for SAD. Psychotherapy or counselling can be helpful to those who feel stuck in their lives or trapped in gloomy ways of viewing themselves.
Meditation helps calm the mind and body and has a role in stress reduction. Many people find various forms of meditation – mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, etc – helps them cope better with fluctuating moods.
Exercise and healthy eating
The value of regular exercise and a healthy balanced diet for the treatment of all depression – including SAD – is well established. Healthy eating is particularly important for those who crave carbohydrates in the winter months.