“Winter is coming” – A famous line from Game of Thrones that also metaphorically stands for the hard times.
As merry as winters sound, with hot cocoa between your palms, a comfortable bed, warm clothes, cuddling with your partner, a city covered in white snow, and the most favorite of all, it’s time for Christmas, but for some, its cold, dark foggy times. I hate to tell you that winter depression actually exists.
What Exactly Is Winter Depression?
The correct term is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is called winter depression for the reason as it occurs during the late fall and early winters. However, summer depression also exists, which usually happens during the spring and summer. But it is extremely rare.
Winter depression or SAD can make one feel unlike themself for a short period (seasonally). Mood changes like feeling down or being less productive during the short hours of sunlight can be addressed as a symptom of this disorder. In severe cases, a person may even feel and think differently, and even their daily life activities are affected.
Feeling sad or emoted is normal. But when the depressive episodes last during specific seasons, and you notice this happening every year, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Such episodes are constant or much more frequent compared to the summer or spring days of the year. Some may experience major depression or just specific symptoms depending upon their mental well-being and exposure to sunlight during the day.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder AKA Winter Depression
As I mentioned above that a person might feel majorly depressed or possess only specific symptoms of this disorder, we will be discussing the signs of major depression, winter depression, and summer depression. This will help you understand and differentiate the three.
Major Depression symptoms include –
- Having suicidal or self-harm thoughts
- Depression throughout the day
- The body feels less energetic
- One has difficulty concentrating
- Change in appetite or weight
- Losing interest in daily activities
- Sleep problems
- Feeling restless and hopeless
Winter SAD-ness symptoms may include –
- Inability to sit still or pacing
- Zoning out resulting in slowed moments or speech
- Constant irritability or mood swings
- Stress, anxiety, or even tearfulness
- Selectively social or complete social withdrawal
- Craving for more carbohydrates
- Reduced sexual interest
- Sleeping more than usual (hypersomnia)
Summer Patterns SAD symptoms may include –
- Insomnia (sleeping less)
- Anxiety and agitation
- Weight loss due to poor appetite
- Violent behavior
A person dealing with any of these may or may not have each symptom. The most common symptom is feeling depressed only during a particular season, and you notice this pattern every consecutive year.
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What are the Causes of the Winter Depression?
To understand this question, you first need to know that a daily intake of sunlight is crucial, and without it, our body functions irregularly. It may hinder and stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is responsible for our growth and development and also controls our appetite. It also plays a role in our memory function, heart rate, emotions, and sleep cycle.
Now let’s comprehend the hormones responsible for SAD.
- Melatonin – Melatonin is a hormone responsible for regulating your sleep patterns. Its deficiency or overproduction can cause disturbed sleep. This means that if the production of melatonin is less, you may have difficulty sleeping. But if its production is more than usual, you may find yourself sleeping longer than usual. This chemical hormone is stimulated by darkness. Hence, due to the shorter days in winter, its production becomes higher than usual.
- Serotonin – Serotonin is a chemical (neurotransmitter) responsible for the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Its levels, whether less or more, can cause depression or serotonin syndrome, respectively. Low serotonin levels in people may cause insomnia, irritability, low confidence, poor impulse control, anger, poor memory, fatigue, digestive issues, nausea, anxiety, panic disorder, eating disorders, and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, an increase in this chemical can be life-threatening and can cause tremors, diarrhea, sweating, high fever, etc.
- Circadian Rhythms – The physical, mental and behavioral changes in the body within the 24-hour cycle are circadian rhythms. It is a natural process that responds to the dark and light. When the body comes across shorter days, the natural cycle gets disrupted, resulting in an imbalanced production of essential hormones.
How to Treat this Disorder?
There are four ways to treat Winter Depression-
Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescribed by certified doctors to control and treat winter depression. However, medications can have side effects. It is advisable to try other methods to overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder, and if nothing works, then medication sure is an option.
Exposure to light at any hour of the day can reset our circadian rhythms. Hence, exposure therapy takes place first thing in the morning. It consists of a person sitting in front of a bright light box (10,000 lux) for almost 30-45 minutes. The therapy can begin in the early days of fall to prevent symptoms of SAD from persisting and can last till early spring or late winter. The light rays emitted are twenty times brighter than the light outside and exclude harmful UV rays.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT or talk therapy has also been adapted for treating SAD. In the group sessions, the therapist aims to help the patients replace their negative thoughts about winter with positive thoughts. It also allows individuals to discover the activities that give them pleasure. This will ensure that people engage in indoor or outdoor activities to restore their lost interest in activities.
SEE ALSO: How To Be Positive Again in Life?
Vitamin D promotes the growth of serotonin, and we receive it through sunlight. Hence, a lower level of sun exposure causes a deficiency in Vitamin D, resulting in poor production of serotonin during winter. One can consume it orally through food items like salmon, eggs, mushrooms, milk products, and almonds. I firmly believe that a human being should be exposed to natural sunlight at least for 30 minutes a day. It helps to keep the hormones balanced and depression at a distance.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
When your balance is disturbed, the hormones responsible for stable bodily functions and brain activities lower in amounts resulting in psychological disorders.
There are methods you can try at home if your symptoms are not major. You can do meditation, regular exercise like aerobics, running or swimming, and taking a healthy diet can improve the condition up to a level. However, taking natural sunlight for at least 20-30 minutes a day will also help majorly.
It is important to avoid caffeine, alcohol consumption, smoking, exposure to light at night, and trying to stay up late to use a phone or laptop. Prevention is the best cure. And if you find yourself in a position where even one symptom is bothering you, get up and start working on yourself.
Note – Do not self-diagnose, and if the symptoms persist, it is advisable to consult a mental health professional.