SAD: It

John McManamy Health Guide
  • This week, I was contacted by a Vancouver-based journalist about seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression. Do I know SAD? SAD is my middle name. People with bipolar disorder are sitting ducks for winter depression, including yours truly.

    Some background: Back in the late ‘70s, Norman Rosenthal, M.D., entered a deep depression after moving to a dreary, wintry New York from South Africa. By experimenting with bright light, he soon found his depression resolved. Voila! Rosenthal’s findings resulted in a new DSM diagnosis, along with a new treatment.

    I was not nearly as smart as Dr. Rosenthal. A few years earlier, I had moved from San Francisco to Vancouver, just in time to experience the October rains. The sun literally didn’t come out, and it didn’t make an appearance in November or December -- and on through winter and well into summer. The Vancouver winter had a double-whammy effect. Between the incessant rain and the high northern latitude, I literally didn’t know what hit me. I felt a sense of sensory deprivation, as if I were viewing the world from inside a tinted fishbowl. No light, no color -- only murky shadows.
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    Nothing went right for me while I lived in Vancouver. I couldn’t even pass my driver’s test there.

    Fast-forward 30 years. This time I was living in New Jersey … Instead of a glorious October in the Northeast, unseasonable rain created a flashback to both an earlier severe depression that nearly killed me in the dead of winter and to my annus horriblus in Vancouver. Previous blog entries recount my October depression and how I dealt with it. I won’t venture to say that I was experiencing a pure case of SAD. My mood was headed south before the bad weather set in, but the steady succession of rainy days undoubtedly made my depression worse.

    The seasons definitely affect me, like many others who share my diagnosis. In winter, my hibernation reflex tends to kick in. If I were a bear I would simply stay huddled under the covers for four months. Summer’s stifling heat, on the other hand, robs me of my life force, ironically driving me indoors and out of the very sun my psyche demands. Give me spring and fall – that’s when I’m energized.

    The bear hibernation analogy is no idle one. John Tsiouris, M.D., of the New York State Institute for Basic Research, proposes "metabolic depression" as the underlying biology for the vegetative symptoms found in major depression. Dr. Tsiouris makes his case with reference to hibernating bears. Both hibernation and metabolic depression, according to Dr. Tsiouris, confer survival advantages such as conservation of energy during times of life-threatening environmental stressors.

    Cast your minds back to our distant ancestors shivering in caves. SAD may well explain how they survived the winter.

    This week, the snows have begun in earnest. The elements have turned on me, with no relief in sight. I will cope by attempting to venture outdoors at least once a day. Even winter on a cloudy day throws off more light than a light box. Moreover, the chill air combined with the exercise can be bracing, though I fail to appreciate this till I’m back indoors with both hands wrapped around a cup of steaming hot tea. Those who prefer not to freeze are encouraged to check out the light box option. These tend to retail for about $300.

  • If you can afford it, a week or two in a warmer, sunnier clime is definitely a worthwhile investment in your sanity. When I lived in Vancouver, I couldn’t help but notice a rather large, discreet winter exodus from the city for places like Florida and Hawaii. In the meantime, do have extra regard for all the things that keep you well, such as good diet and exercise, as well as being mindful of all the stressors that can throw you off your mental game. Even in the best of times, we are a vulnerable population. Winter, for many of us, is hardly that.
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Published On: December 13, 2005