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Winter months increase risk of depression for some

Seasonal Affective Disorder — a type of depression related to the changing of the seasons.

Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD may set in during winter months
Viv Williams / Forum News Service
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DOUGLAS COUNTY — As the winter months begin, the days start getting shorter and the weather gets colder and while its usually a time of holiday family get-togethers filled with laughter and memories, for some, it's a SAD time.

SAD is Seasonal Affective Disorder — a type of depression related to the changing of the seasons.

Symptoms of SAD:

  • Feeling sad
  • Loss of interest
  • Carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Suicidal thoughts or tendencies

"SAD is more of a major depressive episode with a seasonal pattern, typically occurring November through February as the days are shorter and there is less natural sunlight, which impairs circadian rhythms by telling our bodies to produce more melatonin (our body's sleep hormone)," said Julie Wymore a Mental Health Professional with The Village Family Service Center in Alexandria. "This is what leads to individuals with SAD to experience more fatigue, lack of energy, feeling down and sad. That in combination with less Vitamin D from natural sunlight and reduced production of Serotonin, are what have been associated with SAD."
Wymore provides psychotherapy to individuals of all ages. She is also a Childcare Mental Health Consultant through the Minnesota Human Services Department.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, 5% of the nation is affected by SAD.

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Wymore says to seek help if you are experiencing more days in a week of feeling sad, down or tearful, if you are having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning or sleeping far more than you usually do and if you are avoiding social interactions and are not able to function as you usually do.

The most common treatment is phototherapy or light therapy — a medical treatment by use of natural or artificial light.

"Light therapy boxes should be specific for seasonal depression, some light boxes are actually meant for treating skin conditions," Wymore explained. "The studies I have read have been consistent in the recommendation for 10,000 Lux (the unit of illuminance, or luminous flux per unit area) and using for 20-30 minutes a day, preferably upon waking in the morning to regulate circadian rhythm to improve serotonin and melatonin balance, improving energy and supporting healthy sleep cycles."

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Seasonal affective disorder occurs in climates where there is less sunlight at certain times of the year. Symptoms include fatigue, depression, hopelessness, and social withdrawal.<br/>
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Other ways to combat SAD are by getting outside, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet and sticking with a normal sleep pattern.

Wymore suggests reaching out to friends and family to plan visits or activities to help keep you socially engaged and to hold you accountable to that. Also, to reach out to your primary care doctor about Vitamin D supplements, or — in more severe cases — prescribed medications.

Who is more likely to experience SAD?

"Women are more likely to experience SAD than men," said Wymore according to reports in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. "(Symptoms) develop after age 20, but that risk actually decreases with age after that. Also, living farther away from the equator is a significant risk factor."

Wymore recommends:

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  • Exercise 20 minutes a day.
  • Schedule social activities.
  • Have something to look forward to throughout the winter months.
  • Stay active outdoors as much as possible.
  • Utilize a light therapy box.
  • Meditation, "Studies show 20 minutes of meditation for eight weeks will change the actual makeup of our brains," she said.
  • Eat a nutrient-dense diet to give your body the vitamins and minerals needed for energy production.
  • Reduce sugar and alcohol intake.

"I would say that for overall well-being, it is necessary to think of your mental health as a part of your physical health, with the same level of importance. Eating well, exercising, meditation and getting adequate sleep is not always enough to protect from illness, however those are four evidence-based ways we can protect ourselves from life's stressors," said Wymore. "If you believe you have SAD or have been diagnosed with SAD in the past, start being intentional as early as November or when you notice mood changes. Acknowledge the pattern and educate your friends and family on signs and symptoms so they can best support you. Create a plan that is actually attainable, and you can be consistent with."
Wymore added that the "winter blues" are very common, but not quite as intense as SAD.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 10% to 20% of Americans get a mild form of the winter blues each year.

An email from Forum Communication Company for its Wednesday Wellness newsletter said, "There’s no clinical diagnosis for the winter blues. However, it’s acknowledged as a common ailment characterized by feeling down,sad, less energized, and less interested than usual. These feelings could be brought on by stressful holidays, the absence of a loved one, or simply just the absence of warmth and sunlight."

The email listed a few things one can do to boost their mood.

  • Humor — "Finding the funny in a difficult situation presents the chance to see things more clearly and acknowledge situations for what they are. Laughter in particular is excellent for physical and mental health."
  • Self-Care — Pay attention to nutrition, sleep, and keep up with regular exercise. Focus on techniques to reduce stress and bolster happiness like reframing a difficult experience or reminding yourself that stressful events typically lead to learning and growth.
  • Remain Hopeful — Accepting and anticipating change makes it easier to adapt to situations with less anxiety.
Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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