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Not just 'a little blue,' Seasonal Affective Disorder goes with gloomy weather

The short and gray winter days can make

The short and gray winter days can make us feel lethargic and withdrawn and, for some people, the winter days can contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a form of depression. This is a view of just such a day, on Tuesday in Oyster Bay. Credit: Danielle Silverman

With the cloudy, gloomy days of February here, shaking off the winter blues can be a challenge.

For people who have Seasonal Affective Disorder — a form of depression — it’s even more difficult. The short, gray winter days with scarce sun can make them feel lethargic and withdrawn.

People who live far north or south of the equator are more likely to be impacted by SAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It's also diagnosed four times more often in women than men. Treatment can include use of a special lightbox that provides bright light without harmful UV rays, therapy and medication. There are several different medications that can be used to ease symptoms of depression year-round or on a more seasonal basis. 

William Sanderson, professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety Depression Clinic at Hofstra University, said it's unclear how prevalent this form of depression is, since many people do not seek out help for mental health issues. Newsday asked Sanderson to explain SAD, officially known as major depression with a seasonal pattern, and how it’s treated.

What is SAD?

Sanderson: It’s a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern to it, unlike most other depressions, and that the seasonal pattern particularly corresponds to the decreasing amount of sunlight that's available in the environment.

It can start in November, especially after daylight saving when it's dark at 5 p.m., but it can happen in December, January and February. It depends on a person's sensitivity, but they can go into a depressive episode, meaning sadness, social withdrawal, lack of pleasure, decreased activity, excessive sleeping … apparently triggered by less light. It usually goes away in the spring.

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How is this different from the winter blues?

Sanderson: Everyone probably depresses a bit during the winter … you’re less likely to do things outside. But this is not just that you are a little blue. This is interfering with your life. You’re not getting to work, you aren’t socializing, you’re just not yourself. Functional impairment is the key.

How prevalent is this?

Sanderson: Probably everyone at some level is affected by sunlight in terms of their mood and activity level. The opposite is spring fever, where people get energized by the spring season. But most people don’t have this level of depression. 

What are some of the treatments used to help someone with this kind of depression?

Sanderson: Exposing yourself to a certain amount of light through lightboxes is important. People could start doing that in advance to try to ward off the depression. There's some evidence that medications could work. And then from a more cognitive behavioral perspective, there are life changes that a person could make. The most common one is just trying to make sure that you get out more because sunlight is more limited.

What is your advice to people who might be sad or depressed during the winter months?

Sanderson: Don’t hesitate to get treatment because you could create other problems as a result. Even though we know a lot of these things are kind of out of people's control, we can give them skills to deal with them.

SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

SAD is a form of major depression with a seasonal pattern. Symptoms of the winter pattern of SAD include:

  • Having low energy
  • Hypersomnia
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

Treatment options for SAD:

  • Medication
  • Light therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Vitamin D

SOURCE: National Institute of Mental Health

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