Everyone gets depressed from time to time; a loved one dies, a promotion falls through, friendships wither and disappear, health problems strike with no warning. Thankfully, most of us recover rather quickly; a natural resiliency takes over and we bounce back from the most dire circumstances. We integrate the loss into our lives and deal with "the new normal." The world calls us back and we gradually regain our equilibrium.
But what if you don't bounce back? What if the feelings of sadness, malaise, low self-worth, sleepless nights and intrusive thoughts continue? What if you just can't shake them off? What do you do if the dark thoughts persist and interfere with your ability to function at work? What happens if you just lose all motivation and find it difficult to get out of bed in the mornings?
You could be suffering from S.A.D, or seasonal affective disorder. SAD is more than "cabin fever;" it's a real mental health issue that's triggered by the change in seasons. In some parts of the country (like here in the Northeast)winter weather can be brutal. The flat gray sky, bare trees and biting wind can set the stage for a depressive state that might last until Spring. You feel like you're trapped in an Ingmar Bergman film! Many of my clients admit to feeling "blue" every year, during the winter months, but a lot of them don't identify it as SAD.
It's worthwhile to track your mood changes at the onset of winter weather. Are you reasonably happy during the Fall and then you feel depression creeping in as the days grow short in late November? Does the stark landscape seem to mirror your own feelings? Does the dark mood pass when the sunshine and flowers return in the Spring?
Here are some important things to remember about S.A.D.
Five percent, or about one in twenty people, suffer from S.A.D. You are not alone and there are support groups for this disorder. It helps to know that other people are suffering from SAD and you might learn some helpful coping skills by sharing your story.
Women suffer from SAD about four times as often as men, but this is true of many mood disorders. More women than men suffer from depression, anxiety, dysthymia. There's some evidence that hormonal influences play a part in SAD. In any case, it is a real disorder and not a "character flaw." You can't wish it away, but you can learn to deal with it.
Keeping a mood diary will give you a sense of control, a feeling of mastery over the condition. Mapping your mood, your activity level, your amount of exposure to sunshine can be helpful in managing SAD.
If your symptoms are mild, you may not need any treatment. You can start with behavioral changes on your own. Make an effort to get more sunshine (bundle up and go out on sunny days, even if it's bitterly cold.) Also, ramping up your exercise may solve the problem. If it's really too cold to walk outside, do "house-walking" which is really popular, and aim for 10,000 steps a day. If you need a little encouragement, there are dozens of good DVD's out there. Or call an exercise buddy and meet up at the local Mall.
If your symptoms are severe or persist for two years, you should be evaluated by a mental health professional. There are many treatments available for seasonal affective disorder. There are special lamps called "light boxes," that are often helpful and some insurance plans will pay for them. And if you feel you need additional help, there is medication and talk therapy. Sometimes educating yourself about the problem and talking it over with a trained professional puts things in perspective. I've found that reassuring my clients that SAD is a temporary biological problem goes a long way to making them feel better.
So, try the self-help approach and know that professional counseling is always available if you need it. And remember that we're already in February, so cheer up, Spring is right around the corner.