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Health & Wellness

Winter blues or something more? It may be Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Researchers have found that people recovering from COVID-19 are more likely to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression or insomnia within three months of their illness from the virus.

After yet more snow arriving late last week, many of us are feeling the winter blues. But for some, it’s much more than that. They began feeling a depression setting in by early fall, and will stay with them until spring. It’s a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Donna Ball, a retired nurse practitioner, first experienced it about 20 years ago.

“I was working at the time, and it was just increasingly difficult to get anything done, to move, to get up in the morning, to stay awake,” she recalled. “It's like moving through chocolate pudding, if that makes any sense. It's just a terrible feeling.”

Ball then found a book that described a condition similar to hers and, upon further investigation, learned she suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Signs of depression include increased irritability, becoming more withdrawn and less interested in activities, and uttering sharper and snappier responses.

But with Seasonal Affective Disorder, there is no depression during the summer months. The symptoms emerge by early fall and are brought on by decreasing daylight.

“The days get shorter, you have less daylight. And light of that intensity is a cue to biological rhythms and keeps them synchronized as the days get shorter,” said Dr. Steven Dubovsky, chair of the Psychiatry Department at the University at Buffalo. “People who are prone to getting depressed, what happens is those circadian rhythms, those daily rhythms of hormone secretion, energy production and so forth, they get thrown out of sync with each other. And that's what brings on the depression.”

Dubovsky noted there are few cases near the equator, but the number increases among individuals living more north or south. Seasonal Affective Disorder arrives by September along Buffalo’s latitude and lingers until about March or April. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the opposite, as the seasonal depression runs from about March or April until about October or November.

Neither Daylight Saving Time nor Standard Time affect the level depression.

Treatments may include antidepressants or psychotherapy, but Dubovsky said what’s necessary is for exposure to bright light, ideally first thing in the morning. With sunny days often hard to come by in Western New York during the winter, many patients use a light box, a device that acts as a therapy lamp.

Among those using one is Michele Brooks, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Buffalo and Erie County (NAMI Buffalo). She begins using it in October and credits it for helping her avoid more serious depression during the season.

“Every morning, I get up and set up a light, it's a small box, and I have my coffee. I read the news, the cat sits on my lap and I just enjoy that 20 minutes of time,” Brooks said. “It forces me to sit down and really start my day that way. And I call the light box my friend because it's really made a big difference in my life.”

While Brooks credits the light box, she said those feeling seasonal depression, or any depression, need to seek help. Her organization’s services include a help line, staffed by volunteers who have also experienced mental health struggles.

“We don't diagnose, but we can guide them to the right resources, whether it's your primary care doctor or a therapist or a physician,” Brooks said.

Dubovsky said what you cannot do is try to simply will it away.

“This is not cured by willpower,” he said. “So simply saying, 'Okay, I'm going to power through this and I'm going to be okay,' you may look okay, but it's not going to make you any less depressed. This is something that should be treated.”

Ball revealed she takes antidepressants as part of her treatment. She also finds markers, as she describes them, to get through the typical depression season. It may be following football in the autumn, then Christmas, and then into the New Year and then February.

What helps her is the knowledge that upon the arrival of winter solstice in late December, daylight begins increasing again.

“February is good,” Ball said. “It's a short month and there's so many markers in February. There's Chinese New Year. There's Groundhog Day. There's Washington's birthday, President’s Day, Valentine's Day, all kinds of things.”

Brooks also said she feels better by this time in the season and she usually discontinues use of her light box by the end of February. Like Ball, winter solstice marks a time to understand that more daylight is ahead.

But like Dubovsky, she said anyone feeling a prolonged depression should not ignore it.

“I really think one of the most important things is if it persists, if you're feeling depressed, do not wait after a couple of weeks. If it's persisting, it doesn't hurt to seek some help,” she said.

NAMI Buffalo’s help line is (716) 226-6264. The agency also provides instructions for handling a more urgent crisis. Also available is Crisis Services, at (716) 834-3131.