Dodging Winter Depression

When Winter arrives, do you find yourself spending long hours in your house or apartment feeling fatigued, anxious, and irritable? If so, you are not alone. As many as half a million people in the United States may experience Winter-onset depression, a type of depression associated with cold-weather months. With a physician’s help, however, Winter-onset depression is a treatable condition.

Winter-onset depression is the most common variety of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression associated with changing seasons. The cause of the condition is unclear, but it may be related to changes in an individual’s circadian rhythm (biological clock) that result from reduced exposure to sunlight in Winter.

Winter-onset SAD typically lasts from late Fall to Summer. SAD usually appears in people age 20 or older, with women experiencing more cases of the disorder than men. SAD is more likely to occur as a person ages, and individuals living in northern regions are more vulnerable to Winter-onset SAD.

Every person’s experience with Winter-onset SAD is different, but common symptoms include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight gain
  • Low energy level and fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Lack of interest in favorite activities

Winter-onset SAD is fairly predictable, as symptoms tend to occur at the same time each year.

“Many people with Winter-onset SAD may benefit from seeing a psychiatrist, who can assess a patient’s symptoms and formulate a treatment plan”, says Seeth Vivek, MD, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. “Possible treatments include medication, behavior therapy, and light therapy.”

Light therapy acts as a substitute for the limited sunlight during the Winter months. Patients sit in front of a light box or wear a light visor for 30 minutes per day, and if the therapy proves effective, they continue it until Spring. Light therapy has few side effects, as it can cause eyestrain and headache.

When it comes to preventing Winter-onset SAD, your best bet is to stay active. Search for odd jobs to do around the house that you put off when the weather was nice, and guard against isolation by scheduling get-togethers with friends.

To make an appointment or to speak with a member of the Department of Psychiatry, please call 718-206-7135.