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Psychiatrist: ‘There Has Been A Tremendous Amount’ Of Seasonal Affective Disorder This Winter

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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File photo of people walking in winter weather. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

File photo of people walking in winter weather. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

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ATLANTA (CBS Atlanta/AP) — Much of the nation has been grappling with severe winter weather for the past few weeks – and forecasts do not indicate any signs of relief.

From Texas to the Carolinas and the South’s business hub in Atlanta, roads were slick with ice, thousands were without power, and a wintry mix fell in many areas Wednesday. The Mid-Atlantic region was also expected to be hit as the storm crawled east, and up to a foot of snow could fall in some places.

Officials and forecasters in several states used unusually dire language in warnings, and they agreed that the biggest concern is ice, which could knock out power for days in wide swaths.

The blasts of winter weather have taken their toll on the lives of Americans, adding difficulty to travel, canceling school days and draining resources.

But in addition to the inconveniences caused by severe winter weather, there is also the potential for many to suffer from what is known as seasonal affective disorder – a specifier of depression that is said to be caused by the combination of cold temperatures, precipitation and shorter days.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the clinical psychiatrist who first described the condition, defines it on his website as “a type of depression that occurs regularly, every autumn and winter, when the days get short and dark, though it may occur at other times as well.”

Rosenthal, who is also the author of a book on the matter entitled “Winter Blues,” said that he has “seen a lot of [seasonal affective disorder] this season.”

“There has been a tremendous amount of it around, even in people who think they’ve got it under control,” he additionally noted.

Laura Miller, a licensed clinical social worker in New York, also indicated a seeming relationship between the weather and the mental and emotional well-being of her patients over the course of this winter.

“I have noticed that a number of my patients have been significantly impacted by the season changes and specifically the increase in the number of hours of darkness. This seems to happen every year around the time when fall flows into winter,” she said.

Miller did mention, however, that the cases she has seen in her practice have not been noticeably more severe than they have in other years, but added that “it is hard to tell since patients usually have other factors that contribute to mood shifts, even if those other factors are not the primary roots or triggers.”

In that vein, some have even debated the extent to which people might suffer from seasonal affective disorder – the findings of one study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon, indicated that it may not be as prevalent as some believe it to be.

“It is clear from prior research that seasonal affective disorder exists,” study lead author David Kerr was quoted as saying by HealthDay. “But our research suggests that what we often think of as the winter blues does not affect people nearly as much as we may think.”

Still, experts agree the deprivation of sunlight, a common side effect of winter weather, can have detrimental effects on the human body and mind. To Rosenthal, this is a primary reason as to why seasonal affective disorder affects those who suffer from it.

“The main factor is darkness,” he stated. “Firstly, there has been a lot of cloud cover. Then, even when it’s been fairly bright outside, it’s still so frigidly cold, so unpleasant, that people minimize their time outdoors.”

He added, “So instead, they are indoors a lot of the time, where there’s a lower light level.”

Others agreed that a lack of sunlight – which is said to both deny people a source of vitamin D and inhibit the development of mood-influencing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, epinephrine and serotonin – has negative effects on humans.

However, some also do not feel the weather alone is responsible for the decline in mood experienced by some around this time of year.

Said Miller, “[T]he most persistent condition that impacts patients dealing with seasonally impacted depression is the shorter and darker days, seemingly because they go on for a significant period of time in which the patient falls into a slump. It’s not specifically the weather that does it.”

For those looking to avoid the potential for winter blues, Rosenthal offered several recommendations.

“I think that the first thing is to keep an eye on the weather … and grab any opportunity you can to get outdoors. It seems as though light is necessary … to make us feel good and happy, and some need it more than others,” he said. “The second thing is, if there are rooms in the house with large windows that you can look out of, even if you’re indoors, you can still benefit from sunlight coming from outside. Or, there’s the old stand-by of bringing light fixtures into the home.”

He also suggested incorporating exercise or meditation into one’s schedule while avoiding stress as much as possible, as “stress tends to make it worse, so [people should] try not to undertake unnecessary tasks during the winter, when it’s cold and you’re already down.”

Kerr and his research team noted in their study that people should be aware of other reasons for a patient’s depression that exist independent of weather, and said that seeking the help of a professional might be the wisest course of action, no matter the source.

On this point, Miller agreed.

“[T]he best way for people to deal with seasonal depression is to speak with a therapist to explore the underlying issues to which seasonal depression may be calling attention,” she said. “Symptoms of depression are trying to call attention to some part of the self in need of attention and patients who become depressed in the darker months may be in a better position to discover what part of themselves that is while they are in a ‘low period.’”

Miller continued, “This can help to alleviate symptoms in the future and decrease the extreme fluctuation in mood by altering the brain’s patterns through insight-oriented psychotherapy or some other kind of talk therapy.”

Rosenthal additionally noted that it is important for people to be aware of how they are feeling and faring throughout the season – and the year – to avoid succumbing to depression.

He stated, “[Seasonal affective disorder] is something you have to look out for. It doesn’t announce itself with a sign [bearing its name]. It creeps in slowly with drops in energy or weight increases. The symptoms accumulate, and before you know it, [you have it].”

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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