The days are shorter, weather is colder, and more people are inclined to stay home rather than bundle up to get together with friends and family. While pop culture is currently glorifying staying home by yourself with a blanket and Netflix, there is also a dark underbelly to this trend.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or “depression with a seasonal pattern” is considered a subtype of major depression. According to psychotherapist Julie Childs, one criteria for diagnosing depression with a seasonal pattern includes depression that begins and ends during a specific season every year, usually beginning in the fall and continuing through the winter months. Additionally, these experiences must be present for at least the last two years.
“One of the possible causes attributed to seasonal depression is the shorter daylight and sunlight hours that occur in the fall and winter months,” Childs explains. “This decrease in sunlight affects people differently and can disturb your body’s internal clock. This disturbance can lead to feelings of depression. Also, reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin levels. Simply stated, serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood. These lower levels of serotonin may contribute to depression symptoms.”
With the distance away from the equator, Minnesotans may be impacted more than people in southern states due to the shorter daylight hours. Statistics indicate the prevalence of seasonal depression in Florida is 1.4 percent and in Alaska it is 9.9 percent. “Seasonal depression is very common,” Childs says. “Although much less common and talked about, there are people who can experience seasonal depression in the spring and summer months.”
Seniors can be especially prone, Child says, because of physical issues that limit their ability to get outdoors as much in the winter months to take advantage of what little daylight there is. For example, some may have mobility issues that make them unsafe on snow and ice, while others may have hesitancy to drive in the dark or winter weather. Hesitancy or inability to leave their home may lead to isolation which may exacerbate the seasonal depression symptoms, especially in the senior GLBT population.
“Seniors certainly may be impacted differently than other stages in life,” Childs says. “In the winter months this isolation may only worsen due to not being able to leave the home as often. Also, social withdrawal is one of the symptoms of seasonal depression which can make it even more difficult for seniors to reach out to others. Making positive connections and forming and maintaining relationships with others may be helpful for combating isolation and lessening the symptoms of depression.”
As Childs explains, isolation for seniors may be a major factor in depression, but particularly so for GLBT-identified individuals who may have been isolated from their families because of their identity. “If isolation is an issue, it may be difficult for someone to seek help or for others to know there is even a problem,” she continues. “Isolation may certainly worsen seasonal depression and, as mentioned previously, it can contribute to experiencing a depressed mood and having little or no energy.”
Thankfully, seasonal depression can be treated in a number of ways, beginning with recognizing if you are experiencing depression with a seasonal pattern and identifying your specific symptoms as a first step. Distinguishing between depression with a seasonal pattern and other types of depression is an important process to determine treatments.
One of the primary treatments for treating seasonal depression is called “light therapy,” which involves exposure to a specific type of artificial light that Childs describes as being brighter than indoor light, but not as bright as sunlight. “Other treatments for seasonal depression include forming connections with others and asking others for help when needed,” Childs says. “It’s also important to pay attention to your sleep patterns and diet/nutritional needs. Not getting enough sleep, making poor food choices (such as eating too many sweets or consuming too much alcohol) may exacerbate the symptoms.”
Due to a possible drop in serotonin levels as a result of reduced sunlight in the winter, Childs suggests exercise as part of treating seasonal depression. Numerous studies indicate that exercise has shown to increase both serotonin production and release, which is important in improving mood and raising the serotonin levels. Some studies even indicate that exercise may be as effective as taking anti-depressant medication. With any exercise plan it is always advisable to consult with your physician on what plan is best for you.
Finally, if someone is having difficulty reaching out to others, having difficulty with self-care, or experiencing worsening symptoms, Childs suggests that it may be helpful for the individual to seek professional assistance from a therapist. She says, “Talk therapy can be a helpful treatment for seasonal depression. If day-to-day functioning is significantly impaired, medications prescribed by an appropriate health care professional may also be considered.”
For friends and family of those impacted by seasonal depression, Childs says it’s important to reach out to seniors with seasonal depression by making direct contact with them. Make frequent phone calls to check in, stop by the person’s home, and make social plans. Making a meaningful connection with a senior during this time is more important than a specific activity.
If you are experiencing depression with a seasonal pattern, it’s important to know there is an end in sight as the seasons change. “If you have noticed an annual pattern of seasonal depression in the fall/winter months, it may be helpful for you to spend some time in the spring and summer months to prepare for the annual seasonal change,” Childs says. “In the summer, when you have more energy, improved concentration, and are not experiencing a depressed mood, you probably will be more effective in putting a plan in place to prepare for and cope with the seasonal change. Additionally, if you continue to experience depression after the typical seasonal pattern, you may want to seek help to determine if you are experiencing another type of depression. Remember the importance of reaching out to others and making meaningful connections throughout the year.”
Julie Childs, MSW, LICSW, LADC can be reached at 651-783-5656 or [email protected]