SAD in Winter

  • Publish Date: Mar 12 2018 1:23AM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 12 2018 1:23AM
SAD in Winter

Do you feel fatigued and depressed when the cold sets in? You may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder


Aslam Khan, 30, a resident of Pulwama town would feel gloomy with the onset of winter. Between October and April, he would suffer from fatigue, depression and social withdrawal, and even feel suicidal. After getting through an engineering degree at Kashmir University, the suffering of winter got too much for him.

“I struggled with periods of exhaustion and misery that seemed out of proportion to what was going on in my life,” Aslam said. He eventually sought psychiatric help, only to be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The psychiatrist recommended staying next to a bright light and going away for winter. Indeed, his life suddenly took on a different complexion as soon he moved to the South Indian city of Bangalore for work. “It was incredibly effective. That year, 2016-17, was the first time in seven years that I got all the way from October to April without feeling suicidal at all. I realised that not everyone may be used to spending half the year hating yourself and wanting to die.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it is better known, describes depression with a seasonal pattern, usually occurring during winter.  Depressive episodes linked to summer can also occur, but are rarer than winter episodes. A lack of light is thought to affect the part of the brain that regulates sleep, appetite, sex drive and mood. Patients experience lethargy and a craving for sugary snacks.

First described in the 1980s, SAD is characterised by recurrent depression that occur annually at the same time each year. Most psychiatrists regard it as being a subclass of generalised depression or, in a smaller proportion of cases, bipolar disorder.

“SAD is depression that comes and goes with seasons and the symptoms of this seasonal nuisance usually build up slowly in late autumn and initial months of winter. People living in places with long winter nights such as Kashmir are more vulnerable to SAD,” said the psychiatrist Dr Zaid Ahmad Wani. “The human body, its metabolism and hormones react to changing seasons. This leads to changes in mood and behaviour. Just as certain people become irritable and aggressive in summer, others feel low and lethargic during winter.” 

“Feeling of uneasiness or feeling blue is normal in winters as long as it does not persist for longer periods,” he explained. “To have genuine SAD, a patient must have suffered depression two years running.” 

Among people suffering from depression in Kashmir, a good proportion of have SAD, the doctor said. “Youngsters are most affected by this disorder. And like other forms of depression it occurs four times more in women than in men but anyone can be affected by SAD,” he added. 

“For people who live with seasonal affective disorder, winters can be very taxing,” said a housewife from downtown Srinagar undergoing treatment for SAD who asked not to be named. “It does, in some cases like mine, trigger feelings of hopelessness, irritability and the cycle of weight gain. For women, especially housewives, we seem to be faring far worse than men and even other women who have access to life outside their home, kitchen. Long winters devoid of basic facilities like uninterrupted power supply also add to the winter gloom here, causing winter blues.”


Prevention and treatment

Having a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet can help prevent SAD. Getting enough sleep and staying hydrated during is key since it boosts energy, improves mental clarity and enhances digestive function. Getting enough sunlight and engaging in regular outdoor exercise is also important. “People have a tendency to isolate themselves from everyone during winter months,” said Zaid. “It is extremely important to maintain one’s activity level to avoid depression.”

Treatment for SAD involves long exposure to light, natural or artificial, sun therapy and antidepressant medication, if needed. Artificial light exposure is effective but may take four to six weeks to see a response, although some patients improve within days. Therapy is continued until sufficient and daily natural sunlight is available. Most healthcare providers, though, say extra care should be taken in giving light therapy or antidepressant medication to individuals susceptible to developing bipolar disorder as they can cause a manic episode as a side effect.