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How to Help Seasonal Depression
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the most popularly known of the seasonal depression disorders isn’t a diagnosis all on its own. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is part of a more general diagnosis of mood disorders instead of a single disease. This categorization mirrors depression overall, separate from “the winter blues.”
No matter which time of year the depression arrives, those who suffer from a cyclical, seasonal repeat can expect the symptoms to start and stop around the same time each year. Winter is the most common time when SAD emerges. The shorter days, the sense of confinement and disrupted sleep patterns (either too little or too much), go hand in hand with lagging energy and depression.
Treatment for those who suffer the winter version is to artificially extend and augment natural sunlight. Many patients benefit from a “light box,” a concentrated light source that mimics the spectrum of the sun, while reducing harmful UV rays. The Mayo Clinic recommends users have at least 30 minutes of light therapy daily, with eyes fully open. This can best be scheduled in the morning and acts as a daylight extender during winter hours.
The lowered sun exposure is also a rationale for giving vitamin D supplements – especially in African Americans, who may be deficient during the winter in any case, simply because their darker pigment, while protecting them from sun damage, also reduces the ability to make vitamin D.
Melatonin is also sometimes used as a hormone to help with sleep disturbances.
In about 10% of seasonal depression patients, the pattern is reversed, and they are more effected in the spring and summer. These patients, surprisingly, may also benefit from light therapy, but the treatment is less beneficial and less commonly prescribed. There are two treatments which seem to help these “reverse” patients. The first is moving to a cooler climate with a lower humidity, the second is to see if there is a link to spring/summer allergies.
If allergies are present, avoidance of the allergen (or treatment to reduce the allergic reaction) is best, only because some allergy medications can exacerbate depression. The link to seasonal allergies and especially pollen counts, has been studied, showing that bipolar patients are especially susceptible.
Interestingly, there is a type of seasonal depression that is keyed more to the weather than the season – although we expect a preponderance of certain types of weather during certain times of the year. Rain haters showed up in one study as well as others who reacted to seasonal variations – “Summer haters.”
If you are being treated for depression and notice a seasonal pattern, or a pattern that varies with the weather, it is important to mention this to your health care professional. It may not be the whole story, but is likely to be a relevant part of the picture. As we have outlined above, there are treatments which help these types of seasonal mood disorders.
A video on seasonal depression can be found here.
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