'Tis the season to be depressed. That seems to be true for a segment of the population who become depressed as the days get shorter.
A lot has been written about "holiday blues," and certainly the holidays bring back negative memories for many. More than any other time of year there is an emphasis on families. If you grew up in an alcoholic family, an abusive family, or a neglectful family the trappings of the season may remind you of what it was like growing-up. Seasonal depression is sometimes hard to diagnose because it kicks-in at the same time of year.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) include:
- Depressed mood
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Sleeping much more than usual, increased need for sleep, or difficulty awakening in the morning
- Increased appetite, often including carbohydrate craving
- Weight gain
- Reduced work productivity
These symptoms are not present in the late spring and summer months. SAD seems to be more common in northern latitudes (and in southern latitudes in the southern hemisphere) because the winter day gets shorter the closer you travel toward the polar regions. Estimates are that SAD affects less than 1% of the population in Florida, while in Alaska as many as 10% of people may suffer.
Many experts believe that many more people suffer from "subclinical SAD" - that they get more sad and lethargic in the wihter, but not actually depressed. The treatments used for SAD may be helpful for these people too. The most important factor in seasonal depression seems to be day length. Some research suggests that the brain may produce less serotonin in some people during short days.
How is seasonal depression treated? One of the most effective treatments is bright light therapy. Sitting under a high intensity bright light for 30 minutes every morning can help people who get depressed in the winter. These lights are available from a number of sources, and research suggests that they do not have to be "full spectrum" lights in order to improve mood. The most important ingredient seems to be the intensity of the light. The light should mimic the brightness of being outdoors on a sunny day.