It’s December as I write and we’re a few days off the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. Those of us living in the northern hemisphere, are typically experiencing short drab days and long dark nights.
I once visited Tromso in Norway during November. Tromso is a charming place, somewhat curiously described as the Paris of the North. It is located about 30 miles inside the arctic circle. Most of the time I seemed to trudge through snow in twilight or darkness, but at least the snow reflected some light. I remember thinking how difficult it must be to move to a place where winter lasts so long and darkness is such a feature.
It’s difficult not to feel a bit washed out during winter but some people experience clear symptoms of depression. Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD) is a sub-type of depression where symptoms usually begin in the autumn or early winter. It is more common in younger people who live at higher latitudes.
It is very common for people with depression to lose their appetite and to experience sleep disturbances. This tends not to be reflected in people with seasonal depression who, if anything, eat more and sleep more. However, to be diagnosed with depressive disorder with seasonal pattern the pattern of onset and remission needs to have occurred for at least a two-year period and with no nonseasonal episodes occurring outside of this. Up to six percent of us may experience the disorder with women of childbearing age considered to be four times more at risk.
Craving carbs, gaining weight and wanting to sleep a lot may appear like a logical response to long winter months but when coupled with irritability, sadness, low mood and loss of interest in sex, the chances are it’s depression.
And the solution? Well, making best use of daylight hours, especially coupled with exercise is probably top of the list. Reduced carbs and a nourishing balanced diet may also help. More passive activities such as sitting in front of a light box may have some benefits but the evidence for it as a therapy is a bit sketchy. According to the Cochrane group who research into the benefits of therapies there is little to recommend antidepressants, light boxes or cognitive therapy. That’s not to say they may not help some people.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.