The holidays are over, the weather is turning gloomier and daylight is in shorter supply.
For many, that can be a recipe for the wintertime blues — which the Evangelical psychology department’s Dr. Anthony Ragusea admits can be confused for a more serious, longterm condition known as Season Affective Disorder.
“The symptoms can become very severe and effect daily functioning and much more, but the condition is also defined by something we can track over at least a two-year period of time,” he said. “It is in the same vein as major depressive disorder, and there are unique criteria for that. For many people, there are other reasons they feel down that isn’t completely altered by the weather alone.”
This time of year can be a trigger for depressive feelings, Ragusea admitted.
“It is dark and cold and people tend to stay inside more. They become more sedentary, which isn’t good for mental health. They can be very understandable reasons for someone to feel down,” he said. “Seasonal affective is more impairing — more of a medical problem.
“It does seem to be tied to where people live — upwards of 10 percent of people in the high north latitudes may suffer from it due to various estimates, and there is a lot less light in that region this time of year.”
Depression can be deadly
Regardless of what is behind someone’s depression, it is important to keep things in context, according to Dr. Stephen Paolucci, chairman of psychiatry at Geisinger Medical Center.
“Depression itself is a normal emotion that can be effected by numerous stressors. Many times, when someone is pushed out of the normal routine, it can add to that stress, and all the busyness of the holidays followed by the lull of early winter can definitely affect the routine,” he said. “A lot of people feel less motivated this time of year. They feel trapped inside — they go to work in the dark and come home in the dark and feel less productive. Maybe they can’t sleep as well, and start taking a few drinks — which never helps.”
As common as depression can be, Paolucci urges people not to simply ignore it.
“Depression is treatable, but it also can become a life-threatening disease, especially for those who feel especially overwhelmed and may become suicidal,” he said.
Red flags for more serious depression concerns usually revolve around a change in regular behaviors.
“They can become more irritable and easily more argumentative. Some people just stop eating or eat way too much. A student may have an unexplained drop in grades and trouble concentrating,” Paolucci said. “If it gets to a point where it interferes with daily living, you need to get help. Things such as not being able to get up in the morning, take care of regular responsibilities and especially if someone starts suggesting they’d rather just be dead or others would be better off without them — those can be signs that someone needs more involved help.”
That can mean visiting your primary care physician or, in more severe situations, calling the suicide prevention hotline (800-273-8255) or local emergency providers.
Tips to fade the ‘blues’
For those who feel down this time of year, Ragusea suggests looking first at your daily routine.
“Organize your lifestyle so it is a lot closer to what it would be during the summer. If you are more active during the summer, find creative ways to increase the activity,” he said. “Think how your life has changed since the summer and how you can make it more like when you were happier and more energized.”
For those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the typical initial treatment is light therapy.
“It is usually the most effective treatment where people are exposed to about 30 minutes to two hours of highly intense light that is the same color temperature as daylight. For those who do this most days of the week for a couple months, or at least a few weeks, that often offers some significant improvement in symptoms,” Ragusea said. “You do need to be careful with this, because in a small sample size of people with seasonal affective, this can trigger a manic state. That is why, if you have seasonal affective, it is important to work with a medical professional.”
Antidepressants can be used in some cases, as well, to take off the edge.
“These can be prescribed for a short period of time, but sometimes people decide to stay on them longer, too, when they see how they can help,” Ragusea said.
Considering lifestyle changes is another way to help change things up.
“Try getting out more or exercising more. Take better care of yourself, such as improving your daily diet and cutting out smoking, alcohol or drugs,” said Paolucci. “These changes, over time, can definitely boost someone’s morale and lead to other positive changes.”
Another option, according to Ragusea, is the supplement melatonin.
“Part of the issues, we think, is disturbance of the circadian rhythm, and melatonin can be helpful with that if taken appropriately. For some, when they don’t get enough of a melatonin spike around sunset, it can lead to trouble sleeping and feeling depressed,” he said. “Start with a small dose — like one milligram — several hours before bedtime. Remember, though, that it is a supplement and not regulated like medication, so there may be some difference in variety and effect from brand to brand.”
Lastly, Ragusea added, if all else fails, maybe it is time to get away for a little bit.
“Go on vacation,” he said. “Go somewhere where it is sunnier!”