Dr. Jody Guyette, one of the area’s leading psychologists, clarifies the “unofficial” moniker.
“SAD isn’t recognized yet as an official disorder but it can be diagnosed as a subtype of depression. It is clearly recognized in the medical community.”
Usually associated with the departure of summer and fall, SAD is most typically common in northern climates, where winters are more pronounced, daylight is in scarce supply, and physical activity can be limited to moving pieces of your chess set or wearing mukluks to the mailbox.
According to Guyette, the symptoms of SAD include depression, social withdrawal, oversleeping and loss of energy, weight gain, and carbohydrate craving. The Mayo Clinic concurs. According to a recent article, “Fall’s short days and long nights may trigger feelings of depression, lethargy, fatigue, and other problems.”
In extreme cases, hopelessness, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and processing information, and suicidal thoughts can also be symptomatic of SAD.
According to Guyette, having the winter blues once is not going to result in a diagnosis of SAD.
“Technically, sufferers experience it seasonally, not just once. Different researchers suggest it may have to do with circadian rhythms, or lack of serotonin. Some also suggest it may be tied to melatonin production.”
Circadian rhythm is a psychological process that lets you know when to sleep or wake. According to the Mayo Clinic, disruption of this natural body clock may cause depression.
A common treatment for SAD is phototherapy, which engages the use of light boxes that help trick the body into thinking it is sunny and warm outside. Guyette says that the FDA has approved bupropion extended-release tablets for the treatment of depressive episodes in people with a history of SAD.
“Cognitive Behavior Therapy has also been shown to be effective, especially in conjunction with light therapy. We don’t have any good information on how to prevent SAD. Early intervention at the onset of symptoms is the best approach that we have at this time. A trip to Maui couldn’t hurt!”
Aileen Haviland, who lives in remote Bethel, Alaska, was curious about SAD.
“During my first winter in Alaska, when the daylight doesn’t start until several hours after I need to be at work, I realized that my old system wasn’t going to work. It was a tough adjustment. I was always sleepy that first winter. And by February, even though the days were getting longer, I can admit to feeling a sort of anxiety that the sun was never going to come back.”
She says that the best advice she received was to stay active.
“Stay active in the winter. If you don’t, you can go stir-crazy.”