In the midst of winter — during a week in which three snow storms, one a possible blizzard, are predicted — do you long for spring?
As I write this, it’s a cold, but beautiful day. The sun is shining and the sky is mostly blue with wispy strands of clouds. The calm before the storm. For some, the promise of a significant snowfall is reason to rejoice. It means skiing and snowmobiling and sledding and building snow forts. Others dread the thought of the driveway, sidewalks and roofs they’ll need to clear.
And then, there are people who feel blue in winter every single day, no matter what. Live in New England, where the days are short and the sun doesn’t shine all that much, and you’re especially vulnerable.
No matter what the season, if you’re a caregiver, you may be at increased risk for becoming depressed. Caregiving by itself doesn’t cause depression, but when you’re looking out for someone else — trying to do your best while juggling other responsibilities and usually putting yourself last — it can take a serious toll.
If, every fall and winter, you seem to get the blues or lapse into a depression that you can’t seem to climb out of until spring or summer, you may have seasonal depression.
Do these symptoms of depression ring true?
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Inability to concentrate
- Extreme fatigue
- Lack of energy
- Need for more sleep
- Carbohydrate craving
- Weight gain
About 10 million people have seasonal depression or what is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and another 10 to 20 percent suffer from a milder form of winter blues. Although SAD can occur in children and adolescents, it generally begins around age 20, most commonly in women.
Risk decreases with age and, therefore, it’s uncommon to see SAD in the elderly. However, depression, in general, is an issue for many older people, a topic we addressed in an earlier post: Depression in the Elderly.
The exact cause of seasonal depression isn’t known, but it appears to be triggered by sunlight — or rather, the lack of sunlight.
“Not everybody in Maine gets seasonally depressed or has what we call seasonal affective disorder or SAD,” says University of Maine professor and researcher, Dr. Sandra Sigmon. “Some people are just that more sensitive to the amount of available sunlight and we really don’t know why that is.”
Whatever the cause, seasonal depression can be extremely debilitating. Dr. Sigmon has spent two decades researching SAD, including looking at how people cope with it year after year.
“Some people cope with it better than others,” she says. “They have an active strategy. They plan to keep up with their activity level, they do hobbies inside, they plan gardens to plant in the spring. They have some really good coping strategies. Other people just tend to go straight to a depressive episode. I think a lot of it comes about because we have time to think about it and we have so many cues in the environment that signal when it’s coming. For example, when that first leaf falls or if you see on television how many hours of daylight we have and it shows a countdown or you just look at the calendar.”
Treating seasonal depression
Light therapy —10,000 lux, says Dr. Sigmon — the amount of sunshine you’d be exposed to on a bright sunny day, helps a lot of people with seasonal depression. Some individuals may also need to take an antidepressant during fall and winter months. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be a big help. (Simply put, a cognitive behavioral therapist helps people recognize how their thoughts affect their moods and behavior and works with them to replace negative patterns of thought with more positive or healthier patterns.)
A few more recommendations
- Get out in the natural sunlight as much as you can — at least 15 minutes a day to get the Vitamin D our bodies need. You can take a Vitamin D supplement, but being outside is especially beneficial because it also means you’re more likely to be active.
- Keep up your normal activity level.
- Try to eat consistently across all seasons.
- Develop some hobbies or interests that you can do on longer winter days — and during blizzards.
- Move to a sunnier location!
- Inside, try to sit next to a window whenever possible.
- If it’s a cloudy day, still go outside. Stroll around the block, walk the dog. At least you’ll be doing something.
Understanding depression – its causes and symptoms and how best to treat it can be overwhelmingly complicated. If your symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your everyday life, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional. Lack of sunlight may be at the root of seasonal depression, but there are other causes of depression — usually a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors. What is vitally important is that if you’re feeling sad and you know in your heart that something is wrong, you need to ask for help.
Advantage Home Care
If you need help caring for an elderly loved one, Advantage Home Care provides in-home care for seniors. Our services are designed not only to help seniors live independently, but also to give family members peace of mind and time to take better care of themselves. Send us an email or give us a call at 1-888-846-1410 or 207-699-2570 to see what we could do to help you and your family.
If you have seasonal depression and have found some solutions, please share them with our readers in the comment box below. Thank you!
Our Aging in Place blog is written by Diane Atwood, who also writes the blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.