The groundhog was right earlier this month – winter in the northern hemisphere is taking longer than usual this year. And the winter blues will take longer to shake off as well. But winter blues is not just a state of mind. It’s for real and in doctor speak it’s called seasonal affective disorder (SAD – what an apt abbreviation!), a psychiatric condition characterized by depressive symptoms during the long, dark, winter months. SAD is said to affect about 2 to 5% of Americans. The incidence is higher as one goes north, where the winters are colder and the daylight hours are less. No wonder the suicide rates are high in winter time in these regions.
Other symptoms include:
- Mood disturbances
- Chronic fatigue and need for more sleep
- Cravings for carbs, leading to increase in weight
Health experts at the University of California at Davis give us some tips on how to survive the winter blues or SAD.
Go outside, go for the light.
A major characteristic of SAD is that it usually goes away with the coming of spring the sun shines more and the days get longer. But in the midst of the winter, we have to find our own source of light, be it normal or artificial.
UC Davis experts recommends a daily walk outside, preferable at midday, to get the most of whatever daily is available. Another way is to adjust our sleeping patterns by going to bed early and waking up early to take advantage of the short daytime. This is one of the reasons why we have daylight savings time.
In Switzerland where I am residing, the gloominess of winter is worsened by the fog and low clouds that are produced by the big lakes in the lowlands even if the sun can be blinding up in the mountains. To help people escape the blues, they are given daily tips as which is the closest hilltop or mountain to go to see the sun. You will even see these tips on the train schedule boards. Great service, eh?
Sun exposure also has the additional benefit of getting Vitamin D!
Use artificial light if you must.
Now, while sunlight may be the best cure for SAD, it may not be available all the time. Think of all those living in the winter darkness up north. Well the UC Davis experts recommend artificial light therapy.
The standard medical treatment for SAD is a TV-sized light box, containing fluorescent bulbs behind a protective filter. These boxes, which cost in the range of $200 to $500 (and are sometimes available to rent), are covered by an increasing number of insurance companies. They emit 2,500 to 10,000 lux (a term used to quantify brightness), which is about equivalent to the outdoor light of dawn or dusk. Illumination in homes and offices is about 500 lux. Treatment for SAD typically involves daily sessions in front of a light box for a period of 15 minutes to 2 hours.
Counselling and medications
Artificial light therapy is said to be work better and faster than drugs. But in cases where light alone doesn’t help, this can be combined with anti-depressants and counselling. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac seem to work best.
This one is from me. Isn’t it great to know that even if we are sad with SAD, the treatment may just be right outside our front door, and relief is just a couple of weeks away? Spring, here I come!