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My answers to questions on this blog do not constitute medical advice, but are merely meant to create an educational forum for consumers. It is always best to discuss these issues with your health care provider.
Ask Brainiac, M.D. – Will Winter Ever End?!
March 10 2015

SAD

QUESTION:
I swear that every single winter, it’s like I put on a heavy, burdensome coat and slug through, barely making it. When spring comes, I slowly come back to my regular self and always have a fantastic summer. It’s gotten to the point that I start dreading winter before it even gets here. What is going with me and is it going to last the rest of my life?

ANSWER:
I am so glad you asked this question. The symptoms you are describing sound very suspicious for Seasonal Affective Disorder. What is that, you may ask? Seasonal Affective Disorder, affectionately known as SAD, is a type of depression that starts and ends about the same time each year. There are two types:

  • Winter-onset: the most common type which has onset typically in the late fall or early winter, with symptoms resolving around the beginning of spring
  •  Summer-onset: much less common with onset in Summer and improved symptoms during winter

The symptoms are very similar to other types of depression and can include sadness, hopelessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, appetite and sleep changes, a heavy-leaden feeling and social isolation among others. Left unaddressed, these symptoms can progress to substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts.   SAD is actually quite common with an estimated 500,000 Americans affected each year. So while the depression convinces you that you’re the only one feeling this way and tempts you to crawl into a ball until your season passes, quite the opposite is true. Tons of people are drudging through winter (and a few more are trudging through summer) each year.   So to get to your second question – hopefully no, this does not have to last the rest of your life. Seasonal Affective Disorder is actually quite responsive to treatment. The most important thing is that you go to a mental health professional and get a full evaluation. Because seasonal symptoms can easily be part of other illness such as Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, you want to make sure you know that your symptoms actually are Seasonal Affective Disorder. If SAD is confirmed, you may think about getting a light box – an intervention that has been shown to help 50-80% of people’s symptoms go almost completely away. The light box mimics natural light and affects processes in the body that are responsible for mood regulation. This, of course, should be done under the guidance of your mental health professional.  I hope this helps, and thankfully (for you), spring is on its way. For my summer-onset seasonals, go get evaluated now so you don’t have to suffer through that summertime sadness.
-Brianiac M.D.


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