Seasonal Depression: More Than Just the “Winter Blues”

The “winter blues” is a term that people have been throwing around for a while, in the hopes that it can encapsulate a feeling that was considered to be normal until not long ago. The temperatures drop, the days get shorter, it’s dark outside a lot earlier, it’s too cold to go out all the time, and before you know it, it becomes harder to get out of bed, you start experiencing extreme sleepiness and drowsiness and it becomes increasingly difficult to get on with your day. It’s the winter blues. Except, it’s a lot more than that.

These symptoms are not just some easily dismissed temporary feelings that come and go with the cold season, they are actually symptoms of seasonal depression, a mood disorder that affects more and more people every year and with a severity that increases with time. It is not something to be dismissed as “winter blues”, it is in fact a subtype of depression and it needs to be treated as so.

What’s seasonal depression?

Seasonal depression is a mood disorder that falls under the category of depression but seems to be linked to certain seasons. While summer depression is rare, but not unheard of, seasonal depression tends to be most often associated with the cold season.

It starts in the late months of fall, lasts all throughout winter, and starts diminishing towards the beginning of spring. It makes its debut with a slow decline in executive function, which registers as starting to feel less and less motivated as the temperatures get lower. As the months go on, it associates fatigue, sadness, changes in appetite, lack of interest in activities that used to bring joy, sleep disturbances, and it can go all the way to thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

What are the risks of developing seasonal depression?

One of the main risk factors for seasonal depression consists of people with previously diagnosed mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.

Seasonal depression also tends to affect more people who live in countries where the cold season lasts longer and the days are shorter, like the Scandinavian countries, but also in countries with perpetually cold weather, with cloudy regions that cause people to get less sunlight, like the United Kingdom.

What causes seasonal depression?

While there are still many uncertainties on this condition, there are theories on its probable causes.
The first factor that’s linked to seasonal depression is the lack of sunlight during the winter months. This can affect people in many ways. Sunlight mainly helps with the production of vitamin D, which in turn helps with the production of serotonin. Less sunlight means less vitamin D, which means less serotonin, which can lead to depression.

Another cause also linked to sunlight would involve the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by our pineal gland which helps induce sleep. The production of melatonin is stimulated by darkness, so the sun setting earlier in the winter months can overstimulate it, which leads to drowsiness and sleepiness.

There is also a social factor, which means that because of the weather conditions in the winter, people are less likely to go out and more likely to stay inside. This can lead to feelings of isolation which exacerbate the mood changes.

Can seasonal depression be prevented?

Seasonal depression can be prevented in about the same way that major depressive disorder can be prevented: not as much as one can hope. It is important to note that mood disorders happen because of a neurochemical imbalance and because of predispositions that are not yet fully understood.

Expecting people to believe that there is something they can do to stop feeling this way would do nothing more than exacerbate the feelings of helplessness, making them feel like seasonal depression happens because of something they’re doing wrong.

That being said, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps you can take in order to better manage it and hopefully keep the symptoms to a minimum.

A healthy diet is always the first step. Do your best to ignore your body’s craving for processed snacks and sweets that can have positive short-lived effects due to the instant gratification phenomenon, but negative in the long run and actually worsen your symptoms. Instead, stick to healthy foods, rich in vitamins and minerals.

While it might be the last thing you want to do, at least 30 minutes of exercise a day can go a long way. It does depend on the level of energy you wake up with on a day-to-day basis. If your symptoms are mild, you might feel more inclined to get yourself to the gym. But if you’re struggling even with getting out of bed, a walk will have the same effect. It’s important to just get your body moving.

It is also important to still get out of the house, even if it’s for short periods of time. And don’t forget to stay connected, stay social, and to not lose sight of your favorite social activities or friends.

Avoid the temptation to isolate yourself, as it will do nothing but make your symptoms worse. This can become a vicious, self-amplifying cycle. And last but not least, steer clear of alcohol or drugs. They can work as nervous system depressants and significantly worsen your condition.

How can you treat seasonal depression?

Some of the preventative measures listed before can actually work as the first line of treatment once the depression has hit. A healthy diet, exercise, and socialization can work wonders in lifting the spirits and dulling the symptoms of depression.

Vitamin D supplements can combat the effects of lack of sunlight and help with the production of more serotonin, therefore also improving your symptoms.

There have been studies referencing the benefits of light therapy in the management of seasonal depression. Light therapy involves the use of a special lamp made of fluorescent light tubes that are covered with a screen that blocks UV light. These lamps are brighter than indoor light. They are, however, to be avoided if you suffer from conditions like diabetes or retinopathy, or if you’re bipolar, as it can trigger manic or hypomanic episodes.

Therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, while recommended to people suffering from major depressive disorders, can bring great benefits in managing the symptoms of seasonal depression as well.

If all else fails, antidepressant medication is always an option. Speak with your healthcare provider to choose the best line of treatment for you. The options are vast and immensely helpful.

Seasonal depression is no trivial matter. No type of mental illness is. Luckily, awareness is key, and once called by its name, this particular mood disorder can be navigated and managed successfully. And if it can’t, there is no shame in that either. There are a lot of options out there, so long as help is requested. Don’t be afraid to try medication, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor, and if it gets unmanageable, there are suicide prevention hotlines available 24/7 to help you navigate your feelings. It can feel like the end of the world, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and spring does come every year.

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