Image: Lucija Rasonja / Pixabay
Imagine the surprise to all Berkshire-ites when yesterday the sky was actuallyâ¦ blue, for the first time in a long time during this gray winter season. As a psychotherapist, I hoped this would give me a break for patients who feel depressed or anxious, but no. Depression and anxiety are the other epidemics in our world right now, a pervasive offshoot of the ongoing COVID and all the uncertainty that this virus brings. But gray days contribute a lot to our feelings of depression. In view of this, I thought it was important to pick up on an article I contributed to last year that might be helpful or offer an understanding of why all that gray gives you the blues.
This article is about things that are SAD, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Yes, it is a real thing, also known as seasonal depression. For those who have it, it usually starts over the seasons, most often from fall to early spring or summer.
SAD manifests itself as a feeling of depression most of the day, loss of energy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, feeling of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, restlessness, overeating, social withdrawal and sometimes thoughts of harming yourself.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD is a direct reaction to the amount of sunlight available. For example, only 1% of those who live in Florida have SAD, while 9% of those in New England have SAD. If you are a woman, you are four times more likely to be affected by seasonal changes. Scientists believe this may be due to hormonal changes triggered at certain times of the year. Less sunlight causes the brain to produce less serotonin, a chemical related to our mood. Less sun = less estrogen = bad mood. Darkness can cause the body to make more melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep-wake cycles, making people with SAD feel more drowsy. People with SAD can also produce less vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to low energy, “brain fog”, mood swings, trouble sleeping and, yes, ladies, less. estrogen.
In addition to hoping for our rare winter days for bluebirds in Berkshire, there is a cure for SAD:
- Light therapy works by replacing sunlight with a softbox that filters out ultraviolet rays. Sitting in front of these lights, which can be purchased online, can be very effective. The NIMH suggests 10,000 lux of cool white fluorescent light.
- Vitamin D supplements work for some and not for others, but are harmless and worth a try. Supplements are suggested because most of us don’t get enough natural vitamin D, which comes first from sun exposure and eating oily fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon. There are also foods fortified with vitamin D, such as milk. The medical community has mixed opinions on their effectiveness. However, before taking any supplement (or medication), talk to your primary care doctor.
- Medication: I’m no pill pusher, but there are times when severe depression or mood swings need a psychopharmacological boost. Talk to your primary care doctor, who might recommend a psychiatrist to prescribe medication.
- Psychotherapy: It’s not a shameless take, but Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is recommended by the NIMH and the Mayo Clinic. CBT helps you identify your negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. A good therapist will also help you find behaviors that will allow you to engage or re-engage in activities that will bring you joy. Much like the Marie Condo of therapy, CBT cleans up old unnecessary thoughts and finds what brings joy.
SAD is real. I look out the window today and the few snowflakes have turned to rain, and some to ice. So I’m going to take some vitamin D, turn on my sunlamp, and later go out and practice skidding down the driveway – this kid from LA hasn’t mastered the art of driving in snow and ice yet. . Stay away because when SAD hits there is nothing quite like sliding down an empty street to please me.
Take SAD seriously and get the help you need.