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Coping with the Winter Blues: A Closer Look at Seasonal Affective Disorder

Nov 11, 2020 | Depression

*(The examples provided below are composite cases, synthesizing disguised information and not any patient in particular)*

It’s that time of year again. Which time, you ask? I am referring to the end of daylight savings time, which coincides, for some, with the onset of seasonal depression. This year is quite unique as we are also experiencing the added collision of an election season, nation-wide protests, and a global pandemic. Just reading this may send some into a tailspin. Research shows, however, that naming an experience and acknowledging it can provide the necessary first steps to taking action and empowering the individual.

It is no understatement to say this year has left a generous helping of stress for much of the U.S. population. Seasonal depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is an aspect of major depressive disorder which by some estimates impacts approximately 10 million Americans. The symptoms of SAD tend to present with a reduction of daylight hours, which may also be referred to as “winter blues”. SAD can also impact individuals during the summer months. Consistently reported symptoms range from:

Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
Thoughts of suicide
Hypersomnia or a tendency to oversleep
A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
Weight gain
A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
A drop in energy level
Decreased physical activity
Difficulty concentrating
Increased sensitivity to social rejection
Avoidance of social situations

Recently, a patient, Yelena* came to speak with me regarding her winter blues. Having experienced seasonal depression symptoms in past years, she noticed the importance of getting ahead of the onset. Through our weekly sessions, we were able to incorporate an understanding of her family’s mental health history, as well as her existing coping skills when managing seasonal symptoms. Yelena was able to acknowledge her strengths, accept the temporary nature of her seasonal experience, and learn additional ways to practice self-acceptance and kindness. She engaged in affirmations like, “Today I can be gentle with myself” and “This experience is a part of me, and does not control me” in an effort to counter her feelings of hopelessness and sadness. Learning how to manage her symptoms, and take care of herself gave Yelena a sense of agency about their life; often one of the greatest benefits of therapy. With guidance and practice, Yelena was able to feel empowered by taking a proactive approach and seeking therapy to mitigate her seasonal depression symptoms.

by Diana Smits, MSW


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