In the depths of winter, more people say they feel tired or depressed. For some, it’s a normal response to less sunlight. Just the winter blues. For others, it can be a deeper, clinical form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that’s a regular pattern of mood changes that leaves people feeling gloomy during the fall and winter months, when there’s less natural sunlight each day.
If someone you’re caring for is suffering from SAD, it might seem like they’re hibernating. They tend to lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. Symptoms may include sadness, feeling hopeless, worthless, or irritable, low energy, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, carbohydrate cravings and weight gain, and thoughts of death or suicide. Without treatment, the symptoms usually last until the days start getting longer.
Since depression can be trickier to spot in individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism, and SAD is a form of depression, caregivers should realize that SAD may manifest in different ways. While people suffering from SAD may be less active when frustrated or feeling hopeless, it’s possible that someone with ID might bang his head or exhibit other behaviors.
The exact causes of SAD are not clear. But researchers have found that people with SAD may suffer from an imbalance of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood. Their bodies may make too much melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, and not enough vitamin D.
The people most at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder tend to be younger females who live far from the equator and come from families with a history of depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD.
In the early 1980s, researchers first discovered a link between light and seasonal depression. They pioneered the light therapy, which has become a first line treatment for SAD. With light therapy, patients sit in front of a light box every morning for at 30 minutes or more, according to a doctor’s recommendation. The light shines brighter than normal indoor lighting and relieves symptoms in up to 70 percent of patients after a few weeks of treatment.
A town in Norway took light therapy to a new level. Three huge mirrors stand on the mountainside above the town of Rjukan, according to Mosaic. The mirrors are mounted in such a way that it turns to track the sun while continuously reflecting its light down to the town square.
Studies also show that certain antidepressants can help treat SAD and prevent winter gloom. And mounting evidence shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can also help people with SAD. It involves identifying patterns and errors in one’s way of thinking and challenging them, according to Kelly Rohan, a psychologist and SAD expert. Patients with SAD might rephrase thought such as “I can’t do anything in winter” to “It’s harder for me to do things in winter, but if I plan and put in effort, I can.” Therapy can also involve finding activities that a person wants to do in the winter to pull out of “hibernation” mode.
Whether you or someone you’re caring for suffers from SAD, know that you can change your thinking and behavior and feel a bit better at this time of year. And with your help, they may be able to feel better too.
If you’re a parent or caretaker of someone who shows signs of having Seasonal Affective Disorder or perhaps experiencing it yourself, these tips from the National Institutes of Health can help lighten the effects of seasonal depression.
- Go to a movie, take a walk in a park, go do some other activity you normally enjoy.
- Get out in the sunlight or brightly lit spaces, especially early in the day.
- Spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative.
- Eat nutritious foods. Avoid overloading on carbohydrates like cookies and candy.
- Be patient. You won’t snap out of depression. But your mood can improve gradually.
- See a mental health professional if sadness doesn’t go away or interferes with your daily life.