Tis the season for “Seasonal Affective Disorder”

Some people develop depression during the shorter days of winter, and this condition is usually called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The decreased amount of sun exposure has been suggested to explain the sadness, sleepiness and sugar cravings many experience as the days grow shorter. Researchers have explained that a chemical in the brain called serotonin is increased in conditions with sufficient sunlight and decreased with less light.

Part of the reason for this involves the role of light in the production of serotonin. Light travels through our eyes via the optic nerve to a place in the brain that turns on and off the production of another chemical called melatonin. Melatonin is produced only during the absence of light and is the substance that appears to help us feel drowsy and maintain sleep.

Researchers have found that many people who have SAD also have higher levels of melatonin circulating in the daytime hours. The switch for melatonin is turned off when light appears. If the nights are longer and the days are shorter, the melatonin switch remains on for longer periods of time. This may result in a sensitive person who has higher levels of melatonin during the day feeling much drowsier and having less energy during the daytime hours.

Melatonin eventually transforms biochemically from serotonin, and serotonin is the neurohormone that appears to impact mood. Available serotonin seems to be converted to melatonin during darkness, which could contribute to lower daytime levels of serotonin if the melatonin levels are increased during shorter days. Many of the antidepressants available today are designed to allow more serotonin to be available to the brain, thus elevating mood to more normal levels when a person is depressed.

So what are some of the symptoms of SAD? Imagine that if you’re going to hibernate like a bear, you would feel sleepy, crave food, gain weight and be increasingly irritable. These are some of the symptoms you might experience, along with feeling sad or down. The good news is that light therapy (the use of a specialized light box under medical supervision), psychotherapy and/or medication can all help you feel better and resolve your feelings of depression during the winter months and allow you to enjoy your holiday celebrations.

SAD appears to impact only a small percentage of the population, with women having a higher incidence than men. However, it can be very serious, and may cause a person to feel suicidal or like giving up. If you or someone you know is thinking or talking about suicide or self-harm, seek immediate medical attention or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK any time of the day or night.

Holiday Depression

The increased emphasis on spending money and the commercialism of the holidays can be a depression trigger to some individuals, especially if you are on a limited budget.

In spite of the variety of reasons for having the holiday blues, the symptoms are the same. If you find yourself isolating, feeling sad, angry or irritable, feeling worthless, hopeless or helpless, lacking motivation, letting your hygiene slip, eating more or less than usual, sleeping more or having trouble sleeping, then you may be suffering from depression. The coping strategies that follow may be helpful if you find yourself struggling with more depression at the holidays.
Use positive coping strategies such as:

  • Staying busy.
  • Use diversions like hobbies, playing games and reading.
  • Volunteer to help someone else.
  • Balance work and play.
  • Sit in the sun.
  • Don’t spend all of your energy on others, save some for yourself.
  • Be good to yourself; spoil yourself a little.
  • Work on recognizing and challenging negative thoughts.
  • Practice thinking positively.
  • Practice positive self-affirmations.
  • Learn to express your feelings appropriately.
  • Learn how to get you needs met.
  • Set and reinforce your boundaries.

If you have reached the state where you are overwhelmed with depression, then you might need to consider talking to your physician about medication. The coping strategies mentioned above are effective long term but can also help you get through a period of time until you can get help.

All antidepressants are not created equal so you might be prepared to try several before finding the one that works best for you. Also, they could take from two weeks to two months to reach therapeutic level, so they are definitely not a quick fix. If it is your decision to try the medication, just be aware that you may not get immediate relief. The best combination of treatments is a combination of medication and therapy.