Originally Published: December 25, 2010 9:54 p.m.
The rainy and cloudy days that the Prescott area has experienced recently are reminiscent of what other parts of the country experience for extended periods throughout the winter. Because of the prevalence of sunny days in Arizona, we are fortunate that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not as common as it is elsewhere. But, it still can be a challenge for some Arizonans. SAD is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression - usually in late fall and winter - alternating with periods of normal or high mood the rest of the year.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), most people with SAD are women whose illness typically begins in their 20s, although men also report SAD of similar severity and have increasingly sought treatment.
Symptoms of winter SAD usually begin in October or November and subside in March or April. Some patients begin to slump as early as August, while others remain well until January. Regardless of the time of onset, most patients don't feel fully back to normal until early May. Depressions are usually mild to moderate, but they can be severe.
The usual characteristics of recurrent winter depression include oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain. Additionally, there are the usual features of depression, especially decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of interest in normal activities and social withdrawal.
NAMI reports that light therapy is now considered the first-line treatment intervention, and if properly dosed can produce relief within days. Antidepressants may also help, and if necessary can be used in conjunction with light.
The most common characteristic of people with winter SAD is their reaction to changes in environmental light. Patients living at different latitudes note that their winter depressions are longer and more profound the farther north they live. Patients with SAD also report that their depression worsens or reappears whenever the weather is overcast at any time of the year, or if their indoor lighting is decreased.
Bright white fluorescent light has been shown to reverse the winter depressive symptoms of SAD. The lamps are encased in a box with a diffusing lens, which also filters out ultraviolet radiation. The box sits on a tabletop, preferably on a stand that raises it to eye level and above. Such an arrangement further reduces glare sensations at high intensity, and preferentially illuminates the lower half of the retina, which is rich in photoreceptors that are thought to mediate the antidepressant response. For more information on SAD, go to www.nami.org