Seasonal depression: Is it winter blues or something more serious?

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  • Decreasing temperatures and cooler weather often mean staying indoors and less sun.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder is most evident in the winter months and can impact your day-to-day mood.
  • If you or a family member have a history of depression, you’re more likely to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

During winter, we also tend to spend more time cooped up indoors, meaning very little exposure to Vitamin D and doing the fun activities we tend to do with our loved ones during the summer time. While this may be the cause of the winter blues, if the symptoms are recurring, it may be time to speak to a professional about a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

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According to the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG), Seasonal Affective Disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition that affects your daily life, your day-to-day functioning and how you feel, think and behave. 

Cassey Chambers, operations director for SADAG says, “Often people will see a change in their mood, or a relapse of symptoms, at significant changes in the seasons. SAD is more reported during the winter months and differs from ordinary blues in respect of certain physical symptoms and a depressed mood.”

Autumn and winter’s dropping temperatures can also come with a drop in your mood. Whereas you might think that these are just the winter blues, it could be Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

During winter, we also tend to spend more time cooped up indoors – meaning very little exposure to the sun, our loved ones, and the stuff we enjoy doing outside – resulting in a slumpy, hazy, lethargic and almost uninspired feeling. 

Clinical psychologist Zanele Dlamini says SAD is a condition of regularly occurring depressions (mood disorders) in the winter and autumn months, with remission in the following spring or summer. 

She adds that the disorder is mainly characterised by the onset and remission of such episodes at specific times of the year and does not include psychosocial stressors or triggers. 

Zanele further explains that for people to be diagnosed with SAD, they must meet the criteria for major depressive disorder coinciding with the winter months for at least two years. 

She describes symptoms of depression as feeling hopeless or worthless, low mood, fatigue, difficulties with concentration, irritability, changes in appetite or weight, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed and isolation.

“In addition, SAD patients tend to have a cluster of symptoms. These include increased sleep and appetite with weight gain. The patients often crave carbohydrates and sweets, especially during the afternoons and evenings. 

“There is often intense daytime drowsiness despite increased sleep duration, decreased sex drive and lack of motivation. For those with severe symptoms, the condition can be disabling and prevent the continuation of everyday activities,” says Zanele.

“During winter, days get shorter and darker. As a result, melatonin production increases, and people tend to feel sleepier and lethargic. Additionally, people with a family history of depression are more likely to develop SAD, and it tends to present in people who live far north and south of the equator, more frequently,” she adds.

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Speaking to TRUELOVE, counsellor and life coach Pretty Kekana says that while the cause of SAD is unclear, there is some evidence that is related to the body’s level of melatonin, which is a hormone that affects the sleep-wake cycle when secreted. Darkness stimulates the production of melatonin, preparing the body to sleep. 

Pretty says doing things like spending time outside (even in gloomy weather), opening your blinds, sitting by a sunny window and, most importantly, eating a well-balanced diet are some of the things you can do to get ahead of SAD.

She adds, “This will help you have more energy, even if you’re craving starchy and sweet foods. You can even utilise this winter period to hit the gym and exercise for 30 minutes a day, five times a week. Even small exercise routines at home can do wonders to clear your mind. Stay involved with your social circle and regular activities as social support is very important”

Zanele says clinical solutions to SAD include light or phototherapy, psychotherapy and vitamin supplements – and if you feel that you don’t get better despite these interventions, seek professional help for a clinical diagnosis and additional interventions.

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