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Beat the Winter Blues

The shorter days of winter and Jack Frost nipping at your nose can make even the most resourceful person feel cooped up and restless. For thousands of people each year, it results in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that tends to occur around the start of fall--when the sun begins setting earlier--through April or early May.

Identifying SAD, making simple lifestyle changes and seeking the help of a professional are key in managing this condition. Read on to learn how you can ease its symptoms and enjoy a healthy, SAD-free winter.

Symptoms

Someone suffering from SAD may feel depressed, hopeless, anxious and tired and may experience social withdrawal, increased appetite and loss of interest in activities he or she once enjoyed. The symptoms of SAD and clinical depression are similar, so it is best to see a doctor or behavioral health provider for an accurate diagnosis.

"I usually ask questions and listen for certain 'buzz' words," said Dr. Vicki Carter, on-site behavioral health director at the Community Health Center of New London. "If they mention they feel depressed because the days are short or because of the weather, or if they're eating more and craving carbohydrates, it could be SAD. If they're experiencing an extreme stressor, like divorce or job loss, their depression or anxiety could be situational. If they've been feeling down for a while, it could be clinical depression. Panic attacks and jitters could be signs of general anxiety. A lot of factors come into play, which is why we recommend seeking advice from a professional who can rule out other mental health conditions."

Causes

The specific causes of SAD remain unknown, but changes in your biological clock could be a factor. "Our body has a way of noticing reduced sunlight," said Dr. Carter. "The changes disrupt our natural rhythm, which can lead to depression or changes in appetite."

Fluctuations in levels of the hormone melatonin, which influences sleep and mood, are also related to sunlight. With less rays, melatonin levels are thrown off balance.

Treatment

To combat the blues, take walks during daylight hours, make time to see friends and family and exercise regularly. While it's natural to feel down from time to time, if you feel depressed for a week or more, or if it's affecting your social or professional life, it may be time to see a doctor.

To prepare for your appointment, Dr. Carter recommends keeping a log of your feelings and symptoms. "If someone can accurately describe their feelings and how long they last, as well as observations, like 'When it's raining, I feel worse,' we can determine the causes faster and begin appropriate treatment."

A professional will use a range of therapies to address negative thoughts and perceptions and teach stress management techniques. He or she may also prescribe antidepressants and/or light therapy. During light therapy, or phototheraphy, you sit close to a specially-designed box that exposes you to bright light. This light mimics sunlight and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals that affect mood.

SAD in the summer?

It's possible! Rather than gain weight, you'll likely lose it as a result of a decreased appetite and may have trouble sleeping. You may also experience an increase in sex drive.

"There are theories that dopamine, called the 'pleasure hormone,' may be triggered too much in the summer, resulting in SAD," said Dr. Carter. "The most important thing to remember is that if you're not feeling well, see a doctor or therapist. The earlier you begin treatment, the faster your symptoms will lessen, and you'll notice a difference in how you feel."