Seasonal depression is real, but so is treatment

Published 2:37 pm Thursday, February 9, 2023

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Kentucky Health News

As much as three percent of the U.S. population is thought to experience seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression associated with winter darkness and northern latitudes. But about 10 percent of patients suffering from SAD have symptoms in the summertime instead, Sarah Gibbens reports for National Geographic.

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The symptoms are the same as clinical depression, Kelly Rohan, a psychologist at the University of Vermont who specializes in the disorder, told Gibbens: “We would look for things like a persistently sad mood. Losing interest in things. Sleep changes. Significant eating or appetite change. Losing energy. Fatigue. Difficulty concentrating.”

At Yale University’s Winter Depression Research Clinic, “The most commonly reported symptoms of winter depression are hypersomnia—the desire to sleep more than usual—and an increased appetite, says Paul Desan, a psychiatrist and the clinic’s director,” Gibbens reports, quoting him: “It’s like human beings are trying to hibernate.”

But not exactly: “About three times as many women as men get SAD for reasons we don’t understand,” Desan said.

Whether in winter or summer, mental health experts say there are solutions to treat SAD,” Gibbens writes. “For those who think they may be experiencing SAD, experts say a professional diagnosis is a crucial first step toward treatment.”

“People should really avoid self-diagnosis,” says Rohan. “Depression is a serious mental health problem, so it’s best to leave it to trained professionals.”

One of the most common treatments is sitting daily in front of a bright box of light for 30 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, Gibbens reports: “Experts say the key is to look for light boxes that provide light equalling 10,000 lux, a measure of brightness. . . . Desan’s clinic’s website lists vetted boxes.”

A treatment that may last longer is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of talk therapy that Rohan endorses: “Negative thinking tends to breed negative emotions, and we want to change those into slightly less negative, more neutral thoughts” “I hate winter,” might be reframed as, “Winter isn’t my favorite season, but I still find things to enjoy.”

Hobbies may also help, Rohan suggests: “People with SAD often have hobbies and interests that are summer specific—growing gardens, beach going,” Winter alternatives are knitting, joining a book club, or going to the gym.

Norman Rosenthal of Georgetown University, who first identified SAD in 1984, told Rohan that lifestyle changes can also be useful against it. “Exercising, learning ways to manage stress, or planning a sunny vacation during the winter can all help to boost your mood, he says. Whether using light or talk therapy, Rosenthal stresses that there’s no reason to not seek mental health treatment, even if symptoms are only present for a few months out of the year.”