Seasonal Affective Disorder: Facing Depression in the Winter

Deborah Gray Health Guide
  • Here in Northern California the rainy season is finally over. This means that for the next few months we are unlikely to see any rain, and very few cloudy days. For someone who has lived most of her life in New England, this is a gift. In New England, winter of course means many months of dreary, cloudy days, but summer is not much better in terms of the amount of sunshine. Summer there means more heat, not necessarily more sun. Not only do we see more of the sun here in California, but it's unbelievably strong compared to the Northeast, even during the winter.

    I've always been a sun worshiper. I'm not interested in getting a tan; I just love being in the sun. It always amazed me that other people weren't dying to be outside every single second of a sunny day. Granted, I'm a little more blasé about it out here since I know that each sunny day is likely to be followed by another one, but I did panic this morning when the fog rolled in and obscured the sun for a couple of hours.

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    Anyway, I didn't notice it at first, but the daily injection of sun in May was giving me tons of energy (mental, not physical. Unfortunately even bright sunshine can't combat Multiple Sclerosis). I was unpacking and cleaning till late at night. Then when we had a few days of rain and clouds, I was exhausted. Not only was I much less ambitious as far as getting things done, but I was yawning all the time. After a few cycles back and forth through sunshine and clouds, it finally dawned on me that the weather was having a very direct effect on my mood and energy.

    I've always scurried home at night instead of doing errands from November to about April and taken my time the rest of the year. I listen to sounds of thunderstorms, birds and ocean waves in the winter to make myself feel a little more connected to the warm weather. And I definitely have a manic cleaning session almost every spring, even since my MS diagnosis made it difficult.

    When this revelation hit me, I looked more closely at the symptoms of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder):

    ● Sleep problems (Nope)
    ● Lethargy (Definitely)
    ● Overeating/Craving for carbohydrates (Probably. I definitely eat lighter in the summer)
    ● Avoiding social contact (hibernation) (Maybe)
    Depression (Nope)
    ● Anxiety (Not that I've noticed)
    ● Increased susceptibility to stress (Definite possibility)
    ● Loss of libido (Maybe)
    ● Irritability (Not that I've noticed)
    ● Mood changes tied to season changes, including short periods of hypomania (overactivity) in spring and autumn (That sounds about right)

    Apparently, there's a form of SAD called sub-syndromal SAD or “winter blues”, in which symptoms such as tiredness, lethargy, sleep and eating problems occur, but depression and anxiety are absent or mild. Bingo.

    Well, what do you know. It had never occurred to me that I might have SAD while I was being successfully treated for depression. I assumed my antidepressant would have that covered.

    Since the antidepressant obviously didn't take care of my probable sub-syndromal SAD, I think it's likely that next rainy season I'm going to try some light therapy treatment. Even if it turns out that it's not 100% effective in my case, I'll have really, really good light for my knitting.

  • Click here for more information about the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association.

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    Have you experienced Seasonal Affective Disorder or the Winter Blues? Tell us about it in the message boards.

Published On: June 12, 2006