No reason to be SAD this winter: Experts offer sufferers hope

By DENISE SEYFER

“Joy to the World” rings out every Christmas season. But for people who experience patterned sadness, fatigue or apathy in fall or winter, celebrating the yuletide joy becomes more challenging.

Seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder may be the cause. SAD is a type of depression that tends to occur each fall and winter as the days grow shorter. It generally saps a person’s energy and increases moodiness.

SAD tends to affect young women more than men. The psychiatric community still questions the connection, but there is agreement that female hormones may be contributing factors.

“Estrogen and progesterone are thought to be links,” said Dr. Gisela Berger, director of mental health services at Omni Family Medical Clinic in Milwaukee. “Women are tied more to the rhythms of nature and its cycles.”

SAD is more than just the “winter blues.” If a person feels out of sorts or irritable during an extended period of time, particularly in the fall and winter when sunlight is at a minimum, there may be cause for concern. In addition, symptoms could include decreased productivity or increased difficulty with relationships, making daily living difficult.

“It’s beyond a day or two of being down,” said Terri Jashinsky, Ph.D, and assistant professor in the Master of Science counseling program at Mount Mary College. “It’s persisting…it significantly gets in the way of a person’s ability to function. … It’s impairing their lives.”

When considering treatment options, fear of being prescribed drugs for SAD should not deter a person from seeking help. A therapist’s tendency is to focus on treating the “whole” person, though some people do benefit from taking psychiatric medications. A medical doctor or a psychiatrist must be consulted.

“The thing I’d recommend first [if you suspect you are experiencing these symptoms] is to seek help … talk to a professional,” Jashinsky said.

If a person is diagnosed with SAD and is not a hazard to himself or herself, psychologists recommend talk therapy and support groups as an effective avenue of treatment beyond just prescribing medication. These therapies teach coping strategies and are relatively inexpensive.

Some over-the-counter vitamins could be encouraged. Melatonin, for example, can help regulate sleeping patterns. Vitamin D, calcium and iron together help boost serotonin levels, which are involved in controlling a person’s pain perception, regulating the sleep-wake cycles and controlling negative long-lasting mood swings.

There can be challenges in diagnosing young adults with SAD, especially on college campuses like Mount Mary, due to the complexity of students’ lives. For one, Mount Mary students tend to work part- or full-time jobs as well as have other life responsibilities and hardships. This may add to the stress, which can cause a person to experience negative moods.

“With college students [at Mount Mary] you have to factor in the winter and there’s the stress of the semester … and the holidays … it makes the diagnosis a little tricky,” said Dr. Thomas Troast, director of the Counseling Center at Mount Mary.

Further, mental health issues carry an unfortunate stigma. Young women might not seek treatment for fear others might perceive them as crazy or abnormal, Troast said. Students may choose to deny an affliction and self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, food or caffeine.

“The worst thing you [a depressed person] should do is drink alcohol … It’s throwing gas on a fire … You’re taking a depressant when you’re depressed,” Troast said.

According to Troast, most of our students at Mount Mary do not exercise enough. Students tend to be ensconced in classrooms, libraries or cafés studying. They don’t get the chance to play, and they tend to eat more. This behavior compounds seasonal depression and generalized depression.

Along with a healthier diet, Troast advocated that people in general as well as people with SAD and depression should get active and go outdoors to receive natural light therapy to combat negative moods. People should walk or bike when they would normally drive or want to stay indoors, especially in the winter.

“Swimming is marvelous because it’s a complete change of the environment,” Troast said. “It’s someplace warm … You’re shedding winter … going to a place where there are lights and activity. This can be very helpful.”

According to Berger, journaling can aide in one’s expression of feelings. Repressing or avoiding feelings, especially negative ones, could lead to an explosion later on. Resolving these issues through writing helps the body and mind relax, and a person is likely to sleep more regularly.

Though treatment can be a battle, in time, SAD sufferers may again sing the words, “We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.”

“The physical stuff is very important,” Troast said. “All young adults need to get energy into their bodies. But number one, they should get evaluated by a medical professional. SAD is a medical condition, not a personal flaw.”

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