Is It Depression or Just the Winter Blues?
What Is the Difference?
Ahhhh. Winter. I like to think of spring and fall as the gateways to summer and winter. They’re “fillers” to get me to my two favorite seasons.
During the summer months, I love to bike, push my son’s stroller, hike, eat ice cream cones, BBQ and spend hours on our boat and at the beach. Then fall hits, and I feel melancholy because most of my favorite activities have fallen by the wayside.
Once winter is in full-swing, I can ski, snowboard, snowshoe, make snowmen with my son, and enjoy the holiday season! Oh, but then winter is over, and spring is that sloppy, muddy mess, and we have to wait for summer all over again.
But I haven’t always been this way. I’ve always been a winter sports aficionado, but in my college years, I didn’t have time to enjoy them. I spent my time studying, in class, and working in a bar until 3:00 am. Needless to say, my mood was less than stellar during the winter months. Or, for most months where the temperature wasn’t above 70 degrees.
Which leads me to wonder… how do we differentiate between depression and the “winter blues?"
Many of the symptoms of SAD are the same as those of clinical, or major, depression—low mood, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, fatigue.— Kelly Rohan, Ph.D., professor of psychological science at University of Vermont, Burlington.
What is the “Winter Blues?"
According to Psychology Today, the “winter blues” is more than just feeling a little bit sad. The “winter blues” is called “seasonal affective disorder” or SAD and it is a type of depression that lasts during the winter, mitigating in the spring when nicer weather comes. An estimated 5% of Americans suffer from SAD.
Kelly Rohan, Ph.D., professor of psychological science at University of Vermont, Burlington, notes that SAD is diagnosed based on symptoms that occur in a seasonal pattern. She also states, “Many of the symptoms of SAD are the same as those of clinical, or major, depression—low mood, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, fatigue.”
However, there are some key differences between SAD and major depression.
People with SAD tend to sleep and eat more, which causes weight gain, whereas people with major depression sleep and eat less, causing weight loss.
People with SAD are also less prone to suicidal ideation. Rohan states, “I think it is because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. People know that spring is coming, [and] they're going to feel better eventually.”
Who Gets SAD?
- Notably, people who live in areas with greater seasonal fluctuations are at higher risk for SAD. This includes people who live near the North and South poles.
- Women are also at a higher risk, as are people in their 20s, people with a family history of SAD, and those who also have major depression and/or bipolar disorder.
- Research also indicates that women who have depression during pregnancy may have increased SAD symptoms.
Treatment for SAD
Light therapy is the first line treatment for SAD, which is in stark contrast to treatment for major depression. With light therapy, the person with SAD sits in front of a special light for about 30 minutes shortly after waking up. This lightbox shuts off melatonin production like it would during the summer months.
Light therapy can be used in conjunction with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). In a research study, participants who utilized CBT had a lesser amount of SAD recurrence the following winter.
Oral melatonin may also be indicated, but speak with your physician first – this treatment modality is still considered experimental.
What if it’s More than SAD?
Unfortunately, sometimes it IS more than SAD.
Your symptoms may be similar to what we discussed with SAD, but they’re typically more persistent – meaning they will outlast the seasonal change. Your symptoms may also be more severe.
Signs and symptoms of not discussed above include angry outbursts, feelings of sadness, anxiety, slowed thinking, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and unexplained physical problems, such as physical pain.
If this sounds like you, it is imperative that you reach out for help right away. Clinical depression is treatable through medication and CBT – but only if you tell someone. The feelings that you are experiencing can improve.
I think it is because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. People know that spring is coming, [and] they're going to feel better eventually.— Kelly Rohan, Ph.D., professor of psychological science at University of Vermont, Burlington.
The Bottom Line…
It can be difficult to distinguish between SAD and clinical depression, which is why it takes an expert. You must reach out to your physician if you are experiencing symptoms.
Remember – if you do not tell someone, you can’t get help for your condition. There is no shame in seeking help. There is a stigma with mental health disorders, but if we all reached out when we needed help, we could break down the stigma.
Written by Krystina Ostermeyer RN, BSN
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