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Winter blues can be more than a mood

| Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012

Adaena Tray just didn't feel like her normal, upbeat self during a recent winter. She felt fatigued, and often fell asleep during her lunch break. Overall, she felt melancholy, and she lacked a sense of enthusiasm and felt less interest in socializing.

Yet, when the spring arrived, the Lawrenceville resident says, she "would start buzzing around." Clearly, Tray's lethargy had something to do with the seasons. Her cure came from a light box, which she purchased for about $200 and started using in late October 2010. Tray, 31, would turn it on for 15 to 20 minutes each morning, and place the box next to her while she ate breakfast or checked her e-mail.

"Almost immediately, I started feeling better," Tray says. "I started feeling a lot more energetic."

She hired a personal trainer and started working out, and even lost 25 pounds during the winter. "I'm not saying the light box did the exercise for me, but I think it really ... gave me the energy to conquer something that had always bothered me," she says.

With cold weather and short, dark days, lethargy and a feeling of malaise descend upon many people. Add that to the post-holiday letdown some people feel in early January, the winter months can feel quite dreary.

For some people, the winter blues and blahs turn into something more severe: Seasonal Affective Disorder. This type of depression -- which affects up to six of every 100 Americans, especially in northern climates -- comes between September and April, and peaks during December, January and February, according to statistics from the American Academy of Family Physicians. An additional 10 to 20 percent of people may experience a milder form of the winter blues, according to the academy numbers.

Nearly three of four SAD sufferers are women, and the average age of onset is 18 to 30. The seasonal depression lifts after the sunnier, longer days of spring and summer arrive.

Dr. Dorothy Sit, a psychiatrist with Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland, says that SAD can be every bit as serious as any major depression, and can even include thoughts of death and suicide. SAD especially affects people who have an underlying mental illness, she says. Winter depression hits about 22 percent of people with bipolar disorder and 10 to 16 percent of people with recurrent depression, Sit says.

The cause of SAD seems to be mostly physical -- namely, a lack of light, which affects the brain's serotonin level, Sit says. Yet, emotional and situational stress can play roles, too.

"Sometimes, if people already are struggling with emotional issues, the (SAD) intensifies them," says Sit, who is researching light therapy for bipolar patients.

Besides the low energy and depressed mood, symptoms of SAD also include an increased need for sleep, and increased appetite, especially a craving for carbohydrates, Sit says.

Laurie Barnett Levine, executive director of the Westmoreland County chapter of Mental Health America, calls winter depression a "legitimate mental disorder," and not something all in the head, like some people might say. Elderly people can be especially vulnerable.

"The light actually affects our own body," says Levine, who has a master's degree in social work. "People can ... feel like hibernating, especially when the holidays are over."

Judith Gusky, an Oakland licensed professional counselor who treats SAD as one of her specialties, sees many regular clients who struggle with anxiety and depression, and have an especially difficult time during the winter months.

"They are realizing that ... they're much more miserable than they are from April to the end of August," she says.

"We are inside more, the days are shorter and our activity level is lower," Gusky says. "Your whole attitude sinks during those months."

Many people, like Ashley Moss of the South Side, haven't struggled with a clinical depression in the winter, yet feel the boredom, fatigue and blahs. Moss -- owner of Hello Productions, which does event planning -- makes a special effort to plan fun events in her personal life during late fall and winter months. Doing things with family and friends, and attending events like First Night on New Year's Eve, helps keep her spirits high during the dreary dark months, Moss says.

"I'm definitely a warm weather girl," says Moss, 28. She is looking forward to a trip to sunny Jamaica in late January.

During the winter, "It's harder to get up and get yourself motivated," she says. "It's hard to wake up when it's so dreary out."

Many people with SAD -- and professionals, like Sit, who treat it -- swear by light boxes, which sometimes can be purchased for less than $100 from places like drugstores. The therapeutic, artificial light, which the user sits by for about 20 minutes each day, imitates the sun and can give users a significant mood boost.

Linda Parker, 58, says that during the winter months, her "bad person" -- irritable, moody and withdrawn -- comes out. She is bipolar and takes medication year-round. But using a light box for 15 to 20 minutes each day mostly has cured the seasonal aggravation.

Coping with winter depression

• Plan ahead if winter blues typically knock you for a loop. Early on, start paying attention to diet and exercise, and look into getting a light box. However, experts recommend seeking professional medical guidance before using a light box.

• Get enough sleep.

• Reach out to people with visits, letters, e-mail and phone calls. Emotional, personal connections are important.

• See a doctor if symptoms become severe enough to wreak havoc in your life. People who feel despondent for a few weeks have gone beyond normal winter blahs and need professional help. Help also is needed for people who feel a complete change in their motivation and energy levels or are missing school or work.

Sources: Psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Sit; Laurie Barnett Levine of Mental Health America; Counselor Judith Gusky

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