Few people truly look forward to the winter months. Aside from the joy and bustle of the holidays, the shorter days, lower temperatures, and gray skies are usually something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
While many of us might grumble, there are some people for whom winter doldrums can be much more serious. Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern (DSM-5), also known by its former name, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a common type of season-related depression that most frequently occurs in the fall and winter months.
Are you moody or truly SAD?
Seasonal Depressive Disorder is a form of clinical depression that interrupts daily life. DSM-5 shares many symptoms with major depression, such as feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; feeling hopeless or worthless; having low energy; losing interest in activities or people you once enjoyed; insomnia; changes in your weight or appetite; feeling sluggish or agitated; having difficulty concentrating; or even thinking about death or suicide.
However, unlike major depression, DSM-5 is characterized by a specific seasonal onset of particular symptoms that can include problems getting along with other people, hypersensitivity to rejection, a heavy feeling in the arms or legs, oversleeping, appetite changes, especially cravings for high-carb foods.
A medical doctor can diagnose DSM-5 with a physical and psychological exam, including a full medical history. In addition to the symptoms above, your doctor will determine whether your symptoms have occurred every year for at least two years, whether or not you’ve had any non-seasonable major depressive episodes and if you have complete relief from symptoms during spring and summer.
Don’t just blame it on the weather.
Like other forms of clinical depression, the causes behind DSM-5 aren’t always clear. But there are certain factors that might be at play, such as your natural circadian rhythm, which can be adversely affected by the decrease in sunlight, or changes in brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin, which can trigger depression.
Other factors can put you at higher risk, such as being young or female, having a family history of SAD, or a personal history of clinical depression or bipolar disorder, or living far from the equator. These are all natural contributors to the disorder – which means people experience the depression even during mild winters such as this one.
Sunnier times may be ahead!
Seasonal depressive disorder is more than just feeling blue, and as such, needs to be treated seriously. Treatment for DSM-5 can often follow common management options for depression, such as therapy, medication and behavior modification.
Additionally, many people with this disorder can find relief with phototherapy, also known as light therapy, which involves sitting a few feet away from an ultra-bright light every day, usually during the morning. Phototherapy usually lasts around 30 minutes, and you’ll be able to read a book, work or do other activity during that time. Phototherapy has proved to be largely successful for patients, and it has almost no side effects. Many doctors also use it to help prevent symptoms before their typical seasonal onset.
Winter doesn’t have to be a SAD season. If you’re depressed or struggling to deal with daily life, please talk to you doctor.
Dr. Wenny Jean is a family medicine physician with Kansas Physician Group. Board-certified and in practice for more than 20 years, she has received numerous awards and grants for her work in family medicine.
Dr. Jean continues to pursue a research interest in public health. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 316.260.1690 or visit kansasphysiciangroup.com.