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Overcoming the Winter Blues - symptoms and treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

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What are the winter blues? What are treatment options for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

When spring seems so close, yet so far away, the winter blues can sink in and it can take a toll on us both physically and mentally. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also referred to as the winter blues, occurs at the same time every year, most commonly in the winter. Fortunately, there is treatment. Ericka Muhlbauer, MD, Family Medicine physician at McFarland Clinic in Carroll, provides information and treatment options for SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Dr. Muhlbauer says that seasonal affective disorder is recurrent changes in mood or behavior (including major depression, mania, or hypomania) that occur with certain seasons. Symptoms tend to improve when that season is over. Mania and hypomania are periods of abnormal increases in mood and energy, accompanied by several other symptoms.
“We do not know for sure what causes the winter blues,” says Dr. Muhlbauer. “It is likely due to many factors including decreased exposure to light both from fewer hours of sunlight during the day and more time spent indoors due to cold temperatures. Genetics may play a role. Decreases in serotonin and other neurotransmitters likely also contribute to the winter blues.”

What are the signs and symptoms of SAD?

Signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder may include:

  • Feeling tired or having no energy
  • Depressed mood
  • Not feeling pleasure or interest in a hobby or other activities you previously enjoyed
  • Having troubles sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • Changes in weight (weight loss or weight gain)
  • Changes in appetite (increase or loss)
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Moving and speaking slower than usual
  • Feeling restless or having trouble staying still
  • Having “brain fog” or increased forgetfulness, increased confusion
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

These symptoms typically begin to worsen in the fall and improve in the spring or summer without treatment.

Can you treat SAD at home?

Dr. Muhlbauer provides some at-home options to help overcome SAD. 

  • Open your curtains during the day to get exposure to daylight.
  • Take walks outside during the day (dressed appropriately).
  • Try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
  • Follow good sleeping habits.

If you are experiencing signs or symptoms of SAD, help is available. “Anytime a person is experiencing symptoms of SAD or depression, they should be seen by a healthcare provider,” says Dr. Muhlbauer. “If a person ever has any thoughts of hurting themselves, they should call 911, go to the emergency room, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.”

Are there treatment options for seasonal affective disorder?

Treatment options are available for SAD and include bright light therapy, counseling, and/or antidepressants.
“Light therapy mimics outdoor light. It is thought that light causes a change in your brain that can improve mood,” says Dr. Muhlbauer. “Light therapy can be obtained from a light therapy box, also called phototherapy boxes or bright light therapy. They are thought to be safe and effective, however they are not approved or regulated by the FDA.”
Dr. Muhlbauer adds that a combination of treatment options tends to be the most effective.
If you are experiencing signs or symptoms of SAD, contact your primary care provider's office.
If you or someone you know has thoughts of causing self-harm, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room. Call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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