Around F.C.

SAD During the Winter: How Seasonal Depression Affects All Ages

When Daylight saving time ends in November and the days seem to become shorter and slower, it also seems to slow down some people’s serotonin levels as well.

For those wondering why they may feel down as fall season comes to a close and winter begins, they may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — also referred to as “seasonal depression.” Common symptoms include feeling sadness most of the days, anxiety, trouble concentrating and more. 

For those who have never heard about SAD, it might be hard to differentiate seasonal affective disorder with the more well-known “winter blues.” According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience the disorder, and it tends to start in young adulthood — between the ages 18 and 30 — and affect women more than men, though researchers are still trying to find out why. The “winter blues” affects about 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans and has milder symptoms compared to SAD.

Michael Repie, the senior director of clinical services at Dominion Hospital in Falls Church, said SAD is “a form of depression” that can have symptoms that last four to five months or longer. Describing it as having a “recurrent, seasonal pattern,” Repie stated SAD is mostly winter-related, with many common symptoms “not too dissimilar to hibernation in some species.” 

“While hibernation is an essential mechanism for animals to conserve energy when sufficient food isn’t readily available,” Repie said, “[SAD] symptoms may match those of Major Depression. 

Along with anxiety and depression, Repie said SAD can also cause social withdrawal, oversleeping, overeating and weight gain. 

According to Repie, SAD by itself is “not common,” affecting less than 3 percent of the general population. However, if an individual has pre-existing mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse, then it may place them at greater risk for SAD, with as much as “25 percent prevalence” across some conditions. 

As for ways SAD can be treated and handled by the people affected by it, Repie stated mood changes and temporarily “feeling down” can be “normal responses” to stress around the shortest day of the year, “just before Christmas.” While SAD may be related to the holidays “and all that’s associated,” Repie said things can be “more serious.” 

If an individual is down for many days and cannot get motivated to do activities that they normally enjoy, it may be more than the “winter blues.”

“If sleep patterns, or appetite has changed, or if one feels hopeless, thinks about suicide, or uses drugs or alcohol to cope, then it is time to seek support,” Repie said. “Help is available!”

Treatment for SAD can include medications — such as antidepressants —, psychotherapy and, most commonly, light therapy — sometimes called “phototherapy” — that can include light boxes to increase one’s serotonin levels. 

As for what people should know about SAD to either help themselves or others, Repie said the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ) is a clinical tool that can be used in primary care settings where clients are “accustomed to coming for treatment” and health professionals can help identify those who may be affected.

“It is a free instrument in the public domain and it is a retrospective, self-administered tool for which no training is required” Repie said. “It may be used as part of a more complete assessment to ascertain if further treatment is required.”