Seasonal Depression Hits Hard in Early Winter

Ernie Shannon's picture
Winter seasonal depression
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During December the Alaska sun doesn't rise until 10:15 a.m. For Lindsay, an Eagle River resident just a few miles from Anchorage, getting out of bed by 9:30 a.m., becomes challenging and despite eight to ten hours of sleep, she awakes feeling exhausted. The sluggish feeling continues for several hours, sometimes all day, exacerbated by the location of her home in a valley where the sun never clears the surrounding mountains.

“For months each winter, we receive no direct sunlight and rely on the ambient skylight which gives the appearance of it being overcast outside every day,” Lindsay shares. “I am depressed and irritable with little motivation to do anything. The simplest tasks seem to take enormous effort and even getting off the couch seems to require more energy than I have. By 4:00 p.m., it is completely dark outside and I am ready for bed. By 8:00 p.m., it is nearly impossible to stay awake. Yet, upon climbing into bed feeling exhausted, I sometimes have trouble falling asleep, and, if I am awakened in the middle of the night, I stand little chance of falling back to sleep until morning.”

December in Alaska invokes scenes of snow-covered mountains surrounded by beautiful snow-laden valleys filled with the state’s own unique blend of wildlife. Many visitors come away from a winter-time sojourn in the nation’s northern-most location stunned by the beauty and immensity of it all. For those who live there, however, the epitome of a winter wonderland can leave them depressed and victims of what’s known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “seasonal depression, often called seasonal affective disorder, is a depression that occurs each year at the same time, usually starting in fall or winter and ending in spring or early summer. It is more than just ‘the winter blues’ or ‘cabin fever.’”

Among the many potential symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are sadness, anxiety, irritability, loss of interest in their usual activities, withdrawing from social activities, and inability to concentrate. Symptoms of SAD can also include, according to the Clinic:

• Fatigue
• Increased need for sleep
• Decreased levels of energy
• Weight gain
• Increase in appetite
• Difficulty concentrating
• Increased desire to be alone
• Between four and six percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD, while 10 to 20 percent may suffer from a more mild form of winter blues. Three-quarters of the sufferers are women, most of whom are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Though SAD is most common during these ages, it can also occur in children and adolescents. Older adults are less likely to experience SAD.
• This illness is more commonly seen in people who live at high latitudes (geographic locations farther north or south of the equator), where seasonal changes are more extreme. It is estimated that one percent of Florida residents, four percent of Washington, D.C. residents, and nearly ten percent of Alaska residents suffer from SAD.

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Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic and in other laboratories can’t pinpoint the cause of SAD, but one commonality seems to be the influence of latitude on SAD and the availability of sunlight. “One theory is that with decreased exposure to sunlight, the biological clock that regulates mood, sleep, and hormones is delayed, running more slowly in winter. Exposure to light may reset the biological clock.”

Another theory, says Clinic officials, is that brain chemicals that transmit information between nerves, called neurotransmitters (for example, serotonin), may be altered in individuals with SAD. It is believed that exposure to light can correct these imbalances.

While the symptoms of Seasonal Active Disorder can be many and impact one’s life in a variety of ways, there is treatment available that seems to work in most cases.

FamilyDoctor.org says “If a doctor suggests you try light therapy, you may use a specially made light box or a light visor that you wear on your head like a cap. You will sit in front of the light box or wear the light visor for a certain length of time each day. Generally, light therapy takes about 30 minutes each day throughout the fall and winter, when you're most likely to be depressed.”

FamilyDoctor also suggests another light therapy “dawn simulator, which is a light that is activated by a timer. It is set up in your bedroom to mimic a natural sunrise. The light turns on early in the morning and gradually increases in brightness and allows your body to wake up naturally, without using an alarm. If light therapy helps, you'll continue it until enough sunlight is available, typically in the springtime. Stopping light therapy too soon can result in a return of symptoms.”

Lindsay, in Alaska, found another solution: “In order to combat these negative effects of SAD, I instituted a vigorous exercise program. The series of workout videos I used really pushed me to my limits and raised my heart rate to the upper end of what is safe for nearly the entire 40 min session.”

She goes on to explain, “After a summer of mountain biking, and at 5'6" and under 110 pounds, I am certainly not overweight or terribly out of shape. Still, I found these intense workouts had a profound effect on my mood and energy. I finally felt awake. I had the energy and motivation to accomplish daily tasks and no longer felt my body shutting down as soon as the sun went down. I was physically more tired at bed time, and fell asleep with ease. While it was still difficult to wake up in the morning darkness, once I did, I felt mentally and physically energized. The irritability disappeared, and I was once more excited to interact with friends and family. When I miss my workouts for three or four days in a row, I feel the symptoms of SAD creep back in, but they are banished just as easily each time I start the exercise back up.”

Image source: Flickr. Creative Commons License.

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