Shedding some light on SAD this winter
The winter weather has held the state in a hammerlock for weeks, and the constant stream of frigid temperatures, ice and snow is no doubt taking an emotional toll on many Connecticut residents.
"If I put out a questionnaire to people, about 90 percent of them would have a change of energy, or mood or weight during the winter months," said Dr. Paul Desan, director of the Winter Depression Research Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
But for a small percentage of the population, the feelings of hopelessness, lethargy and withdrawal brought on by winter's grip are particularly severe. These are people suffering from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression spurred by a lack of exposure to sunlight.
Many of its symptoms sound like typical reactions to the doldrums of winter -- including oversleeping, eating too many of those comforting carbohydrates, and increased irritability. Experts, however, said seasonal affective disorder is a serious mental health problem that shouldn't be written off as just a case of the winter blues.
"This is a form of depression, and sometimes with depression, people can do dangerous things to hurt themselves or others," said Dr. Jeremy Barowsky, director of addiction medicine at Greenwich Hospital.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 5 percent of Americans have SAD. It's more prevalent in this region of the country, where winters tend to be harsher, and darker, Desan said.
More InformationAre you SAD?
There is no test for seasonal affective disorder, and it's often diagnosed via symptoms. Here are some common SAD symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health:
Increased appetite with weight gain
Less energy and ability to concentrate
Loss of interest in work or other activities
Unhappiness and irritability
"We think (the prevalence of SAD) is very much dependent on the light/dark cycle," he said. "The incidence goes up the further from the equator you are."
For those afflicted with the condition, a winter like this -- with long stretches of bitter cold and several snowy, overcast days -- could exacerbate symptoms, Goldman said. "When it's colder, people tend to stay inside, which secondarily means they're getting less exposure to sunlight," he said.
Dr. Robyn Goldman, a psychologist at St. Vincent's Behavioral Health in Westport, echoed those sentiments. The people she treats often have serious pre-existing psychological troubles, and, for some of them, SAD gets added to that emotional cocktail when the winter hits. Goldman said this year has been particularly rough on her seasonally sensitive patients. "People are definitely saying that the weather is getting to them more than usual," she said.
Desan was quick to point out it's light, not temperature, that's the key to seasonal affective disorder and he hasn't seen a spike in people complaining of symptoms this season. Still, he said, with several weeks left in winter, it's important for those exhibiting symptoms to address their problems.
There are several ways to treat SAD. Desan said medication works for some people, but one of the most common, and effective, SAD treatments is light therapy. This involves patients exposing themselves to a bright lamp -- also known as a light box -- that mimics the sun's rays. Though there are devices available online, Desan recommends that those who think they need light therapy seek the advice of a doctor.
Barowsky said self-care can also lessen the effect of SAD. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods (and limiting sugar), exercising regularly and getting out of the house occasionally are all ways to help alleviate seasonal depression. The good news, Barowsky said, is that long-lasting relief from SAD is mere weeks away.
"Usually, we see people start to pull out of it around March, when the days get longer and we start to enter spring," he said.
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