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- What is Seasonal Depression?
- What Causes Seasonal Depression?
- Diagnosing Seasonal Depression
- Help for Seasonal Depression
- More Information on Seasonal Depression
What is Seasonal Depression?
Do you find yourself feeling depressed as the season changes from fall to winter? Are you experiencing cravings for sweet foods and carbohydrates? Are your energy levels low? Do you constantly feel hopeless, frustrated, and anxious? Have you had thoughts of hopelessness and despair?
Most of us generally feel more upbeat and positive with a spring in our step when the weather is sunny and bright. When the weather is gloomy, cold and dismal, our moods slump and we feel a bit down and beating off seasonal depression can be difficult. However, in some people these mood shifts develop into a type of depression that accompanies seasonal changes and affects their ability to function normally.
Recurrent episodes of clinical depression that surface during seasonal changes, particularly winter and/or during the holidays, are referred to as seasonal depression – or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also commonly called seasonal mood disorder. This condition is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus – the part of the brain that governs the primary functions of the body such as appetite, temperature, sleep, sex drive, mood and activity.
The hypothalamus is stimulated by natural light entering the eye and striking the retina. When the days are short and sunlight is reduced, the hypothalamus has to adjust its response to the various body mechanisms, slowing down these functions. A milder form of this type of depression is more commonly referred to as winter depression, winter blues, cabin fever or hibernation reaction. Other names for this condition include the holiday blues, holiday depression, or holiday grief.
While winter depression can be uncomfortable, the condition is not unbearable. The classic symptoms of winter depression include fatigue, oversleeping, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, low libido, and sometimes even hopelessness, social withdrawal and suicidal thoughts. These symptoms are similar to those of Seasonal Affective Disorder – but not as severe.
Winter depression usually begins in late fall or early winter and generally disappears by the summer (begins in October or November and subsides in March or April). It frequently affects people living in the northern geographic regions.
People with winter depression are affected by the changes in environmental light such as overcast weather or dim lighting that worsens their depression. Winter is not the only season responsible for mood slumps – a less common type of seasonal affection disorder is called summer depression and it usually begins in late spring or early summer and goes away by winter.
Very often seasonal depression is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms presented are so similar to other types of depression. It is sometimes misdiagnosed as a physical condition such as hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections. There are various treatments options for seasonal depression such as drug, complementary and natural therapy, all of which will enable people to lead fulfilling and productive lives.
Common symptoms of winter depression include the following:
- Weight gain
- A change in appetite (carbohydrate and sweet craving)
- A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
- Physical ailments such as body aches, constipation, diarrhea
- Low energy levels
- A tendency to sleep for longer periods
- Loss of sex drive
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and anxiety
- Suicidal thoughts
- Crying spells
- Increased sensitivity to social rejection
- Social withdrawal
Common symptoms of summer depression include the following:
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Sleep disorders (such as Insomnia)
- Crying spells
- Trouble concentrating
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
The exact causes of seasonal depression are unknown. Research shows that a lack of bright light during the winter months may be the cause of the development of Seasonal Depression – bright light affects the chemicals in the brain.
Other research shows that a disrupted body clock (circadian rhythm) causes depression and lethargy. In addition, low serotonin (neurotransmitters carrying messages to the brain) and melatonin levels (the hormone which makes us sleep) can be found in people suffering from Seasonal Depression.
Diagnosing Seasonal Depression
The diagnosis for seasonal depression is based upon the reported symptoms, along with a history of seasonal episodes. A Seasonal Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) will also determine if a person’s sleep patterns, weight, energy levels, mood and social activity is affected.
Help for Seasonal Depression
In many cases, people who experience seasonal depression are often misdiagnosed or symptoms are overlooked because they are so varied and common. However, there are effective ways to treat and control the symptoms of Seasonal Depression and it is not necessary for people to suffer year after year.
Symptoms associated with depression can affect daily living and should not be ignored. Treatment options include conventional therapy, psychotherapy, complementary therapy, natural therapy or a combination of these approaches. Conventional drugs for the treatment of seasonal depression include antidepressant medication such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil or Celexa.
While these may be beneficial in the short term, many long term effects are unknown. In addition, side effects often include insomnia, reduced sex drive, weight gain, headaches and other symptoms. Counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very helpful and provide support during the difficult months as well as help with lifestyle changes.
More Information on Seasonal Depression
Tips to help you cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- Allow more natural sunlight into your day by spending time outdoors, keeping the curtains or blinds open and decorating your space with bright, cheerful colors
- Eat a well balanced diet (rich in fruit and vegetables)
- Exercise regularly, specifically outdoors if possible, by jogging, walking, cycling or playing golf -studies have shown that one hour in the winter sunlight can lift your spirits
- Take a winter vacation in a sunny location
- Stop negative thoughts and try to develop a positive outlook that you are going to enjoy winter
- Incorporate more laughter into your life – it is said to release the chemical, dopamine into the brain, which counteracts seasonal depression
- Join a support group to share your feeling and experiences with others
- Surround yourself with supportive friends and family
- Minimize stress by practicing deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or pilates
- Do things you enjoy such as reading, listening to music, shopping, painting or cooking
- Seek counseling or psychotherapy
- Try light therapy (phototherapy) – sit in front of a light box or special SAD lamp (to help lessen seasonal depression) for approximately 30 minutes each day