Lifestyle Medicine, Mind-Body Medicine

A Case of the Winter Blues or Could It Be Depression?

Wintertime (for us northern hemispheric folk) can get us all feeling a bit blue at times. We wish for the warmer weather and want to crawl back under the covers and curl up in a cozy bed. But we can all feel like this occasionally; so, how do you know when you, a friend or family member is suffering from something more serious?

To diagnose depression, doctors use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (if you want some light bedtime reading, this is not the thing for you!). Interestingly, in the most recent edition of this text, the term Seasonal Affective Disorder was abandoned. Instead, it’s being called Major Depressive Disorder “with Seasonal Pattern”. Why? Because it’s not just the winter blues — it’s depression, only it just occurs during a predictable time each year.

These aren’t just interesting facts to drop at a cocktail party; I’m telling you because what we’ve always called SAD is depression, which can be life-threatening if left unchecked. Luckily, it’s also treatable so get familiar with the symptoms to stay healthy. Plus, you might just save a life.

Seasonal or Not, Here’s How to Spot Depression:

Doctors make a diagnosis of depression when patients suffer with symptoms almost all day, every day, for at least two weeks. We’re also looking for a change in someone’s usual behaviour that starts to interfere with relationships, work, school or other aspects of someone’s life.

Depression can manifest in different ways, but to make the diagnosis, your doctor is looking for at least two of the following symptoms; one is struggling with a  depressed mood or anhedonia, which is a fancy medical word for being unable to feel pleasure.

The following list outlines the major symptoms of depression.

Your mood is low. This isn’t just a bad day here or there. Depression sufferers have low mood nearly all day every day. They may notice it themselves, or others may notice this change in behaviour.

Nothing makes you happy (you’re anhedonic). You’re not interested in doing your usual activities, and things that you’d typically find enjoyable just aren’t bringing you any pleasure.

Your appetite is low, or your weight changes. You may notice you’re losing weight unintentionally, or putting on weight. Your doctor would likely consider about a 5% change in your usual weight a months’ time significant. Alternatively, you may notice your appetite is just nonexistent.

Sleeping is problematic. You may sleep too much or too little and this problem occurs almost every day. A classic sign of depression is what we call “terminal insomnia” or waking up in the early hours of the morning, and feeling unable to fall back to sleep.

Guilt drags you down. You feel worthless, or guilty about things that really shouldn’t or wouldn’t typically make someone feel that way, or guilty to the same extent.

You’re tired. Fatigued. No energy. You just feeling ‘draggy’ most of the day.

Concentrating isn’t possible. You can’t think clearly most of the time, or perhaps you find you just can’t make up your mind about anything.

You’re sped up, or slowed down. Others notice you’re agitated, fidgeting or pacing; or perhaps, they find your speech or movements abnormally slow.

You think about death. This could mean you’re continually thinking about dying; or perhaps you’ve thought you’d be better off dead. Maybe you’ve even made a plan.

What if it is Depression?

If you start to notice these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, see a doctor. He or she can help.

Not meeting the above criteria, but starting to drag? The following strategies can help boost your mood:

  • get plenty of exercise, fresh air and sunshine (or lightbox therapy, or vitamin D in a bottle — for most adults, at least 1000 IU daily)

  • keep a regular sleep schedule and ensure you’re getting enough that you’re feeling rested on waking

  • read a good book

  • engage in activities you typically enjoy

  • confide in a friend

 Don’t keep your head in a dark cloud all winter. We’re all here to help.

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