Cloudy, cold days can make people feel moody. But if depression hangs on through the winter, they may have seasonal affective disorder.
SAD is defined as a mood disorder or form of depression that occurs during a season, typically beginning in late fall or early winter and ending in the spring.
Like other mood disorders, SAD interferes with the ability to function. SAD can cause someone to withdraw socially and can interfere with productivity at work and chores at home, says Dr. Ellen Kochman, an internist with Sherman Group Practice in Bartlett.
Look for the signs
Not everyone has the same symptoms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD symptoms can include:
• Sadness, anxiousness or an empty feeling
• Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
• Irritability or restlessness
• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyed
• Fatigue or decreased energy
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering details or making decisions
• Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
• Weight changes
•Thoughts of death or suicide
Although the causes of seasonal affective disorder are being studied, doctors generally agree that it is associated with a lack of light.
“When you go into the sun, our skin starts making vitamin D, which is essential for serotonin and melatonin production,” says Dr. Jayarama Naidu, an Elgin psychiatrist.
Serotonin and melatonin, which are chemicals in the brain, affect mood and sleep, Naidu says.
Less sunlight can disrupt the balance of the hormone melatonin and cause a serotonin reduction, which may trigger depression, according to Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit leader in medical care, research and education.
SAD can occur as mild depression, Naidu says, but it also affects patients with major depression and bipolar disorders.
Naidu has noticed that patients with clinical depression often need an increase in medication around Thanksgiving.
Living far north or south of the equator, being female, a family history of SAD and having clinical depression or a bipolar disorder may increase the risk of SAD, Mayo Clinic reports.
Studies show that SAD is more prevalent in people who live in cold climates and northern states, which have shorter periods of daylight in the winter.
“We see a lot of people with SAD in the Chicago area, as opposed to down south — in Texas and Alabama, places like that,” Naidu says.
An estimated 20 percent of the population suffers from SAD, he says, but that includes mild cases that may not need help.
Both doctors use antidepressants for patients with SAD and recommend psychotherapy, which may include behavior modification to reduce negative thought patterns.
“People [with mood disorders] have trouble motivating themselves,” Kochman says.
When their condition is severe enough and they’re not functioning, she says, medication and therapy are helpful and work hand in hand.
What you can do
The doctors suggest a few self-help techniques for those who have some depressive symptoms or feel stressed during the holiday season.
They both advocate regular exercise as an essential treatment to boost mood.
Naidu recommends 30 minutes of exercise a day — even if it’s just walking around the block — to release endorphins in the body.
“The endorphin is a naturally occurring antidepressant in the brain,” Naidu says.
To replace sunlight lacking in the fall and winter, he suggests using light therapy. Instead of buying an expensive light box, he says, install a fluorescent light in at least one room and sit near it for about 30 minutes in the morning.
Another self-help remedy is social interaction with family and friends, who can help resolve problems Naidu says.
Kochman also suggests recording thoughts and feelings in a journal to help relieve symptoms of depression.
During this time of year, many people experience some depression or the holiday blues.
For example, buying gifts, visiting multiple families and remembering lost loved ones can cause stress and interfere with coping mechanisms, Kochman says.
“There’s no question that during the holidays, that is a very stressful time for many, many people,” she says. kc