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Seasonal Affective Disorder

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JIll FitzGerald MSW, LICSW- Family Counseling Associates of Andover



The official dictionary definition of winter is: the coldest season of the year, characterized by misery and barrenness. Well, that’s comforting. And for those of us that live in New England, we know that this is only the beginning. Many of us are keenly aware of what the next few months will likely bring (insert here mental image of salt stained boots, runny noses, towering snow mounds, and never-ending layers of clothing). In addition to these wonderful hallmarks of the winter season, many people will experience an increase in sadness, irritability, and lethargy. For some, this may mean having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Some people may feel sad and tearful and not be able to explain why. Some may find it harder to tolerate life’s inevitable stressors. If you are shaking your head right now saying, “Yes, this is me!”, these symptoms may be explained by something called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What is it? 
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a “mood disorder that affects an individual the same time each year, usually starting when the weather becomes colder in September or October, and ends in April or May when the weather becomes warmer. People feel depressed during the shorter days of winter, and more cheerful and energetic during the brightness of spring and summer.” (www.psychcentral.com). Makes sense right? As the winter months approach (and then drag along as we are accustomed to here in the northeast) the lack of sunlight and access to outdoor activities can have a direct effect on an individual’s mood. As a result, people who experience this disorder often have lowered energy levels during the winter months, which can impact their work, health, relationships, and day-to-day lives. The good news? There are ways to manage the symptoms of this disorder without having to win the lottery and move to your own personal oasis in Bali, although that would be pretty amazing!

How is it treated? 
The current research shows that there are a number of options to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. The most beneficial treatment may vary depending on the individual, and should be determined by a trained professional, whether that be a therapist, primary care physician, or psychiatric medication prescriber. Listed below are the interventions that have been noted to be effective:

  • Speaking to a trained clinical professional. Start by talking it out. Meeting with a therapist may help to identify and reframe thought processes that may be contributing to your seasonal depression, and/or to develop coping skills to manage stress throughout the year. Having a trained professional support you in developing a plan for how to manage symptoms is a great place to start. To explore meeting with a clinician, please visit www.www.fca-andover.com for more information.
  • Anti-depressant medication. There are a number of anti-depressant medications that have been shown to be effective in managing symptoms of this disorder. To explore medication as an option for treatment, please visit www.www.fca-andover.comor contact your primary care physician for more information.
  • Light therapy. Unfortunately, this does not mean that your insurance company will now pay for that personal oasis in Bali. Light therapy involves exposure to intense levels of light under controlled conditions for a period each day. The idea is that this light exposure will replace light lost in the darker months, and improve overall mood. The light is administered through a box instrument, and there are many different types of these on the market. If you are interested in learning more about light therapy, please go to http://www.columbia.edu/~mt12/blt.htm for more information.

Whatever avenue for treatment is chosen, the outlook is good. Many people are able to successfully manage what was once termed the “winter blues”, and make it through these more challenging months feeling productive, present, and hopeful. In parting, I leave you with a quote from Anne Bradstreet:

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

Thanks for reading and best wishes for a safe and healthy winter season (although I am still holding out for that oasis in Bali)!