Original article in ABC News (June, 2016) by Selina Green and Kate Hill.
Has your mood plummeted with the temperature? Planning a beeline between the couch and fridge and not much else over winter?
For residents of parts of southern Australia, which suffer from high rainfall and long, dark days during winter, a simple case of the winter blues can turn into something more serious, according to Swinburne University Professor of Psychology, Greg Murray.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a genuine clinical condition believed to be caused by decreased light exposure in winter.
“It’s a condition where a person has recurrent episodes of diagnosable depression and those episodes fall in winter each year,” he said.
SAD was different to the general mood downturn that many people commonly experienced in winter months, said Professor Murray.
“A significant proportion of people in southern Australia do describe themselves as feeling a bit flat and lethargic in winter,” he said.
“Most of us want to sleep more, put on a bit more weight, are attracted to fatty foods, so there are some biological mechanisms that predispose us to being a little less motivated in winter than at other times of year.
“If your mood is having a marked impact on your ability to function or impacts on your thoughts and feelings about self, seek help.”
But how do you know when your winter blues have crossed the tipping point into full-blown SAD?
Professor Murray asks his patients this question — “Do you get the sense that you can find your way out of this?”
If the answer is no, then it is time to have a chat to a professional and perhaps seek treatment.
“If your mood is having a marked impact on your ability to function or impacts on your thoughts and feelings about self, seek help,” he said.
“It’s as serious as any other depression and needs to be dealt with quite assertively.”
According to Professor Murray, SAD cases in Australia were rare and he and other clinicians see a handful of cases each year.
“Our best bet in something like 1 in 300 people in Australia may warrant that diagnosis,” he said.
Professor Murray said treatment for the disorder could include those used for other types of depression, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, anti-depressant medication or bright light treatment.
Scepticism still surrounds SAD
First identified in the United States in the 1980s, SAD was known as a seasonal depression and became widely recognised by therapists worldwide.
However, Professor Murray said there had always been some scepticism about the existence of SAD, with some doubting over whether decreased light exposure could trigger changes in mood.
“People are starting to think that a very specific type of depression caused by lack of light in winter might be a bit of an overstatement,” he said.
In fact, there had always been interest into whether the fairer of the seasons — summer and spring — might trigger the same disorder, he said.
“In fact the bible of psychiatry, when it describes SAD, it says that the seasonal pattern can take any form. It could be spring, summer, autumn or winter.”
“One of the things that gets more difficult in winter is exercise and another is socialising.”
Sufferers may consider simply waiting out the winter months, but Professor Murray said any sort of depression warrants attention.
“Humans are normally self-correcting,” he said.
“If life gets us down in the dumps or gets a bit difficult, most of us, by the time we are adults, have coping skills for getting around that, whether it be have a swim, or have some mates around for dinner or have a chat to your partner about it.
“But depression, by definition, if it’s at diagnosable level, is where our system has adopted an unusual orientation and maybe we no longer have access to those constructive thoughts and behaviours that would normally see us through.”
As for those aware their mood plummets during colder months, Professor Murray said they could proactively plan for it while the sun was still shining.
“One of the things that gets more difficult in winter is exercise and another is socialising,” he said.
“Given that those two things are critical for most people’s mental wellbeing, once daylight savings drops away, plan how you’re going to keep up these activities up in winter.”
Making a commitment to socialise once a month with friends and taking out a gym membership over the colder months could help.
And when the sun does shine through the clouds, get out there and enjoy it, he said.
“Most of us can benefit from getting an hour or so of outdoor light every day. That may well address some of those biological processes.”