Winter can be a dark and dreary time for many people, but for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, feelings of depression and loneliness during the winter months can be overwhelming.
Jason Hales, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in depression and trauma issues among families and children and has his own practice in Tooele, said SAD is no myth.
“A lot of times people think it’s just something that is made up, but it’s real. It’s similar to an episode of depression,” Hales said.
Evan Kenison, another licensed clinical social worker who specializes in individual, marriage and family counseling and also has his own practice, Sunset Counseling in Tooele, said SAD typically only affects adults, and is more common in women. Kenison, who specializes in helping women cope with depression issues, believes this is because women are more apt to acknowledge feelings of depression than men. Some of the symptoms people experience include an increased or decreased appetite, increased need for sleep, loss of energy, a hard time concentrating, loss of interest in work or other activities, and a loss of interest in interacting socially. As with other types of depression, seasonal affective disorder can also lead to problems such as suicidal thoughts or behavior and substance abuse if not treated.
Jane, a 63-year-old Stockton resident whose name has been changed at her request to protect her identity, said she has suffered from SAD for most of her life. When she was younger it didn’t used to affect her as much as it does now, but every winter she gets the same depression.
“As I get into fall and I get closer to the fact that I know winter is coming and I think about winter, it’s not good,” she said. “It’s almost a fear because you have an idea of what it’s like and you know it’s not going to be fun.”
Jane described SAD as a feeling of stress and a weight on her shoulders.
“It’s kind of like you have something just weighing on you, and then when good weather hits, it’s gone,” she said.
Jane said she does not like to leave her house during the winter, especially if it snows. She said she likes to hide out in her house with the lights on, and will try to not look out the windows.
“I don’t like making appointments in the winter,” she said. “I hate to commit myself in case there is snow. Even when I go downstairs it’s hard to do laundry. Doing laundry is the worst because it’s in the basement and it’s unheated.”
Hales said he tends to see an increase in patients who suffer from SAD at his practice during the fall and winter months, and then a decrease when the weather begins to warm up.
SAD is experienced by six of every 100 people in the United States, according to statistics by the American Academy of Family Physicians. The disorder increases in people who are living farther away from the equator, and occurs most often in northern regions such as Alaska and Canada.
“Cloud cover here in Utah really contributes to Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter,” he said. “If you’re in a warmer area where the sun is shining more, like in Nevada or Arizona, there’s not as high of a propensity for it to occur.”
“We call it a relapse,” he said. “Patients are doing really well, things are going smoothly, but then around the colder times of the year they begin to feel depressed.”
Many people who suffer from SAD in Utah are not typically depressed at other times of the year. Some people can even cope with SAD easily by doing winter activities like skiing or playing in the snow.
“I think the big reason why many people go hunting is simply because they want to get out and feel better,” Kenison said.
Hales said when his patients are suffering from SAD, he encourages them to be outside, at least when the sun is out.
“I tell my patients to go walk through the mountains to find the sun,” he said. “When we have the inversion here it’s dark and gloomy, but up in the mountains they can get above it. It’s sunny there.”
Because the sun doesn’t usually rise until 7 a.m. and it’s starts getting dark around 5 p.m. on the shortest winter days, it’s common for people when they are driving home from work to feel trapped, isolated or like nobody cares about them, Kenison said.
“They decide that because it’s dark there’s nothing to do, so they just go home, eat and watch TV,” he said.
Because of this, Kenison thinks people should develop seasonal hobbies.
“People need ways to remain active and interested in what they’re doing,” he said. “Winter is the best time for me to do house projects. Why not repaint or work on the basement? Then in the summer months, you can get out in the yard.”
Hales said people can also try light therapy, using fluorescent light boxes in their homes to mimic the sun’s rays. Light boxes can be purchased from drug stores without a prescription and traditionally have fluorescent, incandescent or LED lights in them. Another thing people can do is to set up a behavioral plan for themselves so that they have things to do each month to keep them busy. Another option many try is self-talk therapy.
“You have to recant things like saying, ‘I’m not important,’ and set up other ways to validate yourself,” Kenison said. “Look at what you’re doing to keep busy and be social.”
Kenison said other things, like music therapy, getting a pet for companionship, or talking about SAD with a therapist can also help.
“You can surround your life with beauty, like bright plants,” Kenison said. “Bring some color into your life.”
The main thing Jane does to cope with SAD is a lot of self-talk.
“Your mental state can make a big difference in how you deal with everything,” she said.
She enjoys listening to upbeat music, such as the song “Knee Deep” by the Zac Brown Band, and she always makes sure to have a good book to read during the winter.
“Reading books is a really good way to put yourself in a whole different world,” she said. “It’s the very best thing. I also get out embroidery. It’s mainly about keeping yourself busy. You don’t want to let your mind run away with you and start thinking about scenarios and things that haven’t happened.”
Another piece of advice she has is to get involved with something outside of the house.
“I go bowling once a week with my husband and that is really helpful,” she said. “No matter what it is, just going to dinner and a movie, that’s often very helpful.”
Hales said treatment options vary from person to person.
“It really depends on the individual. Some people do well with light therapy, some people do better with talking, and some people do better with anti-depressants,” he said. “The best thing is realizing that they aren’t alone in this. This is a real thing that does occur and it’s not just in their head or made up.”