Many Minnesotans notice a change in their behavior or mood during the fall and winter months as daylight hours shorten and the cold drives us indoors. If changes are mild and do not impair your ability to function, this pattern, called “seasonality,” is common and normal. If the changes are more prominent or are impacting your life in a significant way, you could be experiencing a disorder aptly named “SAD” or Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is SAD?
SAD is actually a subtype of either recurrent depression or bipolar disorder. Most of the time it shows up as “winter depression” but more rarely it can also show up as summertime depression or summertime mania (a hyperactive mood associated with very little sleep and a component of bipolar disorder). Any mood episode be it depression, mania or hypomania, that occurs with a seasonal pattern can be considered SAD, but this post will focus on winter depression because that is the most common manifestation of SAD.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
If you have winter depression, you will notice depression symptoms that start repeatedly in the fall to early winter and resolve during the spring or summer, though you may also experience recurrences during persistent cloudy weather. Symptoms may include the following:
- Depressed mood
- Loss of pleasure or interest in things you previously enjoyed
- Change in appetite or weight (usually increased)
- Sleep disturbance (usually sleeping too much)
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feeling slowed down
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Recurrent thoughts of suicide
What are some treatment options for SAD?
If you experience seasonality or full-blown winter depression, there are some things you can do to help. Increasing light exposure during the day can be particularly beneficial. If you can’t manage a trip to Florida, simply getting outside for a walk during the day can be quite effective. Even a cloudy day provides four to 20 times more light intensity than typical indoor home lighting. Studies have also shown that aerobic exercise may help with SAD. Improving your sleep quality can also significantly improve your mood. Start by establishing a consistent bedtime and wake time and limiting blue light (i.e. from electronics) within one to two hours of bedtime.
- Eat healthy foods, get enough sleep and try to get more exercise - especially do things that make you happy. A healthy body will make you feel better psychologically, too.
- Do not drink alcohol or use illegal drugs, because these can accentuate depression.
- Talk therapy is helpful for some people with seasonal affective disorder. Your doctor may recommend visiting with another professional, but you can also talk about your feelings informally with someone you trust. It also helps to spend time with people who are upbeat and caring. That might be family or friends, though volunteer work or other outside group activities can also improve your outlook.
- Light therapy may be another option. This treatment uses a special, very bright lamp to mimic sunlight. Your health care provider can explain how it works.
If symptoms of seasonality or SAD are affecting your life, let your doctor know. He or she may give you more helpful advice on combating the winter blues, refer you to a counselor, prescribe a light box or start a medication to help. Your doctor might also give you a physical exam or do some blood tests as part of the diagnostic process, to help rule out other health problems with similar symptoms. Take heart Minnesotans: spring is just around the corner.
Ridgeview Medical Center is an independent, nonprofit, regional health care system located just 35 minutes west of Minneapolis on Highway 5. Its network includes two hospitals—located in Waconia and Arlington—a multitude of primary and specialty care clinics, emergency services and specialty programs, and Two Twelve Medical Center in Chaska—a free-standing 24/7 emergency and urgent care facility with multi-specialty clinics and services.