Despite the holiday season – or maybe because of the holidays – a lot of people get the winter blues. Sure, everyone gets a little down once and awhile. And if I asked you questions like those you hear on TV commercials for anti-depressants, I am likely to get answers of Yes from almost everyone. Would you answer Yes to 5 or more of these questions?
- Do you sometimes feel sad?
- Do you find yourself more unhappy in winter?
- Are you irritable with others?
- Do you want to sleep more?
- Do things seem more hopeless lately?
- Do you have difficulty concentrating on one task?
- Has your appetite increased? Have you gained weight? Do you crave carbohydrates and “comfort food?”
- Have you been choosing not to be social with friends?
- Do you lack energy?
- Has your desire for sex decreased?
- Do you find yourself thinking more about dying?
It seems like most of us could answer in the affirmative to at least some of those questions.
Those questions are really just a list of symptoms for the very real Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I wrote about SAD a few years ago, but it is truly a seasonal topic and one worth writing about again.
I know it is something that affects me. I have done a good amount of reading on it, and have tried several methods of alleviating it with mixed results.
There is actually one of those embarrassingly-titled Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies books that is a good introduction to the disorder.
According to Seasonal Affective Disorder: Practice and Research, SAD affects 1 in 100 adults in western countries and is a rare example of a psychiatric disorder with a clear, identifiable biological cause.
When people have recurrent episodes of depression as the days get darker, colder and shorter in late fall and winter, it may not require counseling or anti-depressants. That is especially true if you find that this depression often improves or disappears at other times of the year.
I have read that it can turn into chronic depression if left untreated as it and the behavior changes carry over into spring and summer. SAD is seen more often in women and typically begins in the teen years or during early adulthood.
If you go to a psychiatrist or psychologist, you may very well be treated with talk therapy and antidepressants. Those might even help. SAD can be misdiagnosed as infectious mononucleosis, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome or other viral infections. The indicator that your mood may be SAD is your reaction to changes in environmental light. For severe sufferers, even a dark, overcast spring day affects their mood negatively.
But SAD is also a disorder that seems to respond better to self-care in that you need to change your eating habits, get on a regular sleep schedule, exercise, avoid alcohol – and literally go into the light. A therapist might be useful in helping with these life changes, if they recognize that SAD is the cause.
Of course, I am not a therapist or doctor and although some of these treatments are perfectly safe to try, if the depression worsens, people should certainly seek professional help and indicate that they feel SAD may be the cause. The National Alliance of Mental Illness at www.nami.org might be a place to start.
The most common treatment is light therapy using natural sunlight or artificial light that mimics sunlight. This doesn’t mean sitting under your reading lamp or in a brightly lit office with flourescent tubes. This light is normally a very bright 10,000 lux and light therapy is typically most effective if exposure time is at least 30 minutes daily and occurs in early morning.
Ironically, light therapy should be avoided when taking certain medications that make you extra sensitive to sunlight which includes some antibiotics, antipsychotics, and even psoriasis medications.
The special lights can be expensive. Of course, even if it’s cold, getting out into real sunlight is cheap and very effective. The problem is that in cold weather, we don’t expose much of our skin to the light. You’re not looking to get a suntan and a daily walk in a park might be enough.
I have checked into the real therapy lamps and they are cost-prohibitive for many people. (For me, insurance would not pay for them.) But since writing my earlier post on SAD, I discovered some inexpensive CFL full-spectrum light bulbs that might be part of your own therapy.
SAD may be one reason some people crave a trip to a sunny beach in the winter – but that’s probably true for almost everyone by the time it is mid-winter.
Another easy remedy to try is Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin that we normally get through regular exposure to sunlight. It’s a good vitamin that is often cited as helping prevent or treat osteoporosis, depression, prostate cancer, breast cancer, diabetes and obesity. Vitamin D is produced by your skin when exposed to ultraviolet radiation from natural sunlight. Those rays cannot penetrate glass, so sitting on the couch or in a car is not going to help. I have read that it is nearly impossible to get adequate amounts of vitamin D just from your diet, so sunlight exposure is the only reliable way to generate vitamin D in your own body.
I’m wary of all the supplements that are available in drug and health stores, but some studies I have read say that carefully timed supplements of the hormone melatonin can help people with SAD. Of course, the warnings on the side of even these seemingly-safe supplements is enough to scare people.
In the book, The Light of Day: A Mindbody Approach to Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder, the author takes what I would consider to be a fringe approach to the disorder. The book recommends combining light therapy and hypnosis. It discusses the differences between hypnosis & self-hypnosis.
Negative ions, or anions, are particles with one or more extra electrons, conferring a net negative charge to the particle. Ions are de-ionized by seeking earthed conductors, such as walls and ceilings. These negative ions are very positive for your mental health.
There is a wide range of ionizer devices. Some are relatively inexpensive and may not be very effective. I’m not sure about the effectiveness of natural crystal salt lampswhich are sometimes called nature’s air purifier. When the lamp is lit, it emits negative ions. More mainstream are the room air purifiers that people with allergies often buy which often include ionizers.
As with getting the right light, there are also some no-cost ways to surround yourself with these good negative ions. Moving water generates negative ions, so waves, waterfalls, water over rocks in a stream or even evaporation releases negative hydrogen ions into the atmosphere. These negative ions can stick to different free radicals and so are very beneficial for our health. If any of those water sources are nearby, sit and read a book nearby!
Unfortunately, any kind of depression puts us in a mood to stay home, avoid people, eat junk, drink alcohol, take drugs, smoke and sleep excessively – all the things that work against feeling better.
Getting out in these winter months when the weather tells you to stay in is tough. But you need the sunlight. And exercise and being in nature are always a good idea.
Yes, you can read more about SAD, but even books that say on the cover that they include Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder need to be coupled with you taking some action to help yourself.