Behavioral and Mental Health
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Nearly everyone knows what it’s like to feel a little low during the long Midwest winters. But for some, they can feel like they’ve bottomed out.
The shorter days and colder temps can bring some to feel more anxious, less hungry, and more irritable. The reason for this can be a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), making winter feel like the longest, gloomiest season of all.
The good news is, though, that knowing whether you’re experiencing SAD doesn’t need to feel like guessing game. SAD has discernable differences from the more common “winter blues.”
“SAD is recognized as a disease, and it looks like major depression in some people,” says Dr. Austin Williams, a family physician with Kettering Health. “The main difference between these conditions is that SAD typically occurs during the winter months, and affects people who don’t necessarily experience depressive symptoms at other times of the year.”
Dr. Williams says that lack of sunlight plays a role in SAD. A decrease in sunlight can
- Disrupt our sleep/wake cycles, leading to poor sleep.
- Lower levels of serotonin in the brain, a feel-good chemical that affects mood.
- Lower Vitamin D levels, which can make us feel more tired than usual.
People who live farther from the equator have a higher risk for SAD. And women are 2-3x more likely to feel depressed in winter than men.
When it’s time to talk to a doctor
Dr. Williams encourages people to talk to their doctor if they have
- Increased or unusual levels anxiety, sadness, loss of interest in normal activities, and mood swings
- Excess sleepiness or difficulty sleeping
- Feelings of failure or a desire to self-harm
- Appetite changes, significant weight gain, or weight loss
- Irritability or social isolation
Your doctor will take talk with you about your symptoms, and may ask you to complete a questionnaire to better understand your concerns.
Since some symptoms of SAD mimic those of Vitamin-D deficiency or an overactive thyroid, your doctor may order a blood test to see if one of these problems could be causing your symptoms.
Anti-depressant medication can be a good option, especially if symptoms are severe or affecting you three or more days a week. Dr. Williams also recommends the following:
- Exercise: Even a brief walk can increase mood-boosting brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. If you exercise outside, you’ll get the added benefit of Vitamin D from the sun, which can help your mood as well.
Read these cold-weather exercising tips before heading outside.
- Practice good sleep habits: This can include going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Avoid computer and phone screens two hours before bedtime can help, too. Artificial lighting—especially the blue light from many electronic devices—suppresses melatonin production, making it more difficult to wind down.
Here are some tips for a good night’s sleep.
- Light therapy: Light therapy boxes mimic outdoor light, which can help regulate your body’s sleep–wake schedule and its release of the hormones to help you feel energized.
- Counseling: SAD can make daily problems of life seem overwhelming. A trained counselor can help you identify and change negative thought patterns, manage your stress, and improve your outlook.
“Whenever patients share a concern about their mental health, I make a point to thank them,” Dr. Williams says.
“It’s difficult to reach out to someone for help. There’s an element of bravery there—but it’s also the first step toward feeling better.”
Don't go through seasonal depression alone. We're here to listen and to help.Learn More About Kettering Health's Behavioral and Mental-Health Care
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