READY: This is a perfect winter for SAD

Mary Ready

Apparently Punxsutawney Phil predicted not only an extended winter but one of the coldest in recent years. Recently, of the 50 states, Florida alone was the only state with no snow on the ground. Even Hawaii’s mountains were capped in white.

Along with school closings, icy roads with miles of backed up traffic, people trapped in their homes, and the economic impact of this very harsh winter, there is another side effect getting some attention in the media.

After watching the Dr. Oz show, I’m convinced I have a classic case of a psychological disorder associated with this winter season. If you’re also feeling a little out of sorts this winter and don’t exactly know why, maybe you and I are the walking wounded contending with an emotional gremlin.

Actually, it’s a very real and personal struggle known as SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. By definition (from the Mayo Clinic) it’s a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year.  Most people with SAD experience symptoms starting in the fall and continuing into the winter months, sapping their energy and making them feel moody.

Not as common, the disorder can cause depression in the spring or early summer, especially if a past heartbreaking event is associated with that time of year. 

Sometimes called winter “blues,” hibernation reaction, or simply winter depression, it’s an official diagnosis first appearing in medical print 30 years ago. Yet the malady is not commonly acknowledged, and the official social response to the problem is usually, “Snap out of it!” So sufferers get very little sympathy. 

A person living in Florida is less likely to have the disorder since it’s more common in people living farther away from the equator. Statistics on seasonal affective disorder in the United States show the disorder occurs in 1 to 10 percent of adults, depending on where they live. It’s about four times more common in women than men, and the average age of people when they first develop this illness is 23 years of age.

Oddly enough, SAD is less common when there is light snow on the ground, so maybe Floridians this year could still be at risk for this kind of depression. Suddenly, I think of Bing Crosby singing “A beautiful sight; we’re happy tonight. Walking in a winter wonderland.”

But I digress.

Winter blues seem to be the result of inadequate bright light, necessary for regulating chemicals in the brain.  Exactly how this occurs and the details of its effects are under various studies, but something as logical as low vitamin D levels in the blood could be the culprit behind this particular depressive disorder.

There is no medical test for SAD, but the symptoms are easy to recognize. They include tiredness, depression, crying spells, irritability, trouble concentrating, body aches, loss of sex drive, sleeping too much or too little, decreased activity level, and overeating, especially of carbohydrates, along with weight gain. In severe instances, seasonal affective disorder can be associated with thoughts of suicide.

The treatment is relatively simple and inexpensive. I get out in my yard and pull up weeds, walk the dog in the rain (for some reason rain cheers me up), or sing loudly in church. 

A glass of Sangria and chocolate also helps.

Experts suggest that regular exposure to bright light, especially fluorescent lights, significantly improves depression in people with this disorder when it presents during the dark months and short days of winter.  Light treatment, also called phototherapy, is more effective when coupled with increased social support.

In other words, find some jolly friends and take a winter vacation to the Caribbean where natural light and warmth is plentiful. Better yet, meet a compassionate friend at the park on a sunny day and just talk.

I’ll bring the wine and the chocolate.

Or there’s always pill therapy. Antidepressant medications, particularly those from the serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor family (SSRI) family, have been used to treat SAD. 

 Hmmm. Maybe aerial spraying of Prozac over icy, dark locations is a good idea.

So, if you’re SAD, now maybe you (and I) know why. We can seek the recommended treatment or wait for someone to tell us to “Snap out of it!”

I think I’ll just have some more Sangria and a Snickers Bar.

Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.