SAD, not necessarily sadness

Published 4:45 pm Friday, December 30, 2022

With the beginning of the winter season in full swing, it is important for people to continue to take care of their mental health to match seasonal changes.

With the winter season in full swing, people may start to have feelings of depression with symptoms that can last until the spring when the days grow longer with the return of Daylight savings Time.

This type of depression is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms “start in the late fall or early winter and go away during the spring and summer,” while also noting that some may even “experience depressive episodes during the spring and summer months,” which is not as common. It is also noted that such seasonal mood changes can be serious and can “affect how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities.”

Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Sentara Healthcare Assistant Manager for Behavioral Health Glinda O’Neill shared facts about both traditional depression and seasonal depression. Working in the mental health field for more than 25 years, O’Neill has provided acute inpatient care for hospitalized individuals, outpatient services, crisis work for those facing a psychiatric crisis, and also worked with various community service boards that provided mental services throughout the community.

“I think what’s most important for people to understand about mental illness overall, is that mental illness can impact anyone — at any stage. Regardless of their financial status, their social economic status, where they live, marital status, etc,” O’Neill said. “Mental illness can impact anyone at any time based on what’s going on in your life, based on situations such as things that are hereditary, based on living environment. So I think it’s really important that people understand that mental health does not have a face per say. And so what I mean by that is it doesn’t just impact people who don’t have a college degree, or people who are possibly impoverished, or people who are very affluent.”

To provide education to the condition, O’Neill explained the typical symptoms of overall depression that many people can face.

“Depression appears in many different ways, so we should not just look for the person who appears to be very sad. But when you’re looking at depression and you’re talking about symptoms, it’s a feeling of sadness, and it’s a feeling of sadness that may or may not be connected to an event,” she said. “It could just be an overall feeling of sadness. People oftentimes who suffer from depression have tearful bouts, so they can begin crying and it’s not really a connection or link to why I am crying or why I’m feeling tearful.”

O’Neill said many people also have a sense of emptiness, hopelessness, feeling that things just are not going to get better.

“A feeling of being helpless that no matter what I do, I always seem to end back up in this space,” she said of those feelings. “It can also manifest itself in ways of anger. Outburst, irritability, frustration and it’s over anything whether it’s a small matter or a huge matter.”

O’Neill then focused on the details of Seasonal Affective Depression.

“When it actually starts to move in the winter month or the colder month, we tend to become in some cases less active. So you’re not able to go outside and do things, you’re not able to possibly have as much daylight, so I think that’s really one of the key pieces when we talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder, by 5-5:30 it’s dark,” she said. “And so we’re missing that sunlight which is very important in regards to our mental health.”

The fall and winter months have proven to be worse for people than spring and summer, O’Neill said.

“They’re also feeling a little more restrictive and can’t get out and see family, friends, etc, because the weather is changing and it’s colder,” she said. “People tend to do a little more isolation in the winter than they do in the summer months. Which, if you’re suffering from depression, then that just allows you to feel more into yourself and feed some of those negative feelings and negative thoughts that sometimes is associated with depression — that feeling of worthlessness, the feeling of fixating on past failures, self-blame.

She said some people affected by SAD ruminate over thoughts about how things could have turned out differently as they reflect on a given situation.

“We tend to focus on a lot of the things that we really don’t have the ability to change, and we do that more when we isolate as opposed to when we’re out and about and doing things with family and friends,” O’Neill said. “When you look at the holidays, that’s what the holiday’s filled with — family and friends.”

O’Neill discussed the real life feelings of depression during the holidays.

“You see it on TV. You see it on the billboard. You listen to it on the radio,” she said. “For an individual who does not have that, for various reasons, then that draws them more into themselves and they start to feel more ‘I don’t have any of this,’ and ‘why don’t I have any of this?’And they just start ruminating on all of those negative thoughts and then that can spiral you into a depressive episode.”

With the awareness of these symptoms, it’s important to learn ways on how to fight back against depression. O’Neill provided tips that can help.

“First and foremost it is to recognize the symptoms,” she said. “To recognize the symptoms in yourself when you are outside of your norm. For example, if you’re the kind of person that loves to read, and you haven’t done any reading in several weeks or even months. That’s a loss of interest.”

She said another symptom of depression is that loss of interest in things that a person might have enjoyed.

“Being able to stay on top of what these symptoms are and to recognize when they are going beyond what we would call ‘a normal timeframe.’ And so when we talk about depression and when we talk about the symptoms, we want to look at is this happening five out of seven days? That’s a better part of the week,” O’Neill explained. “Also if you’re having problems sleeping — insomnia is very common with depression. If you’re having problems sleeping and you’re finding that this is happening three, four, five times a week, then that’s a symptom that I need to look into.”

She said it’s important to recognize the symptoms, their timeframe and to determine if they are associated with an event the person has experienced in their lifetime.

“If you’re recognizing these symptoms and it’s impairing your ability to perform your day to day activities, then that’s a sign that ‘OK, let me reach out to a professional,’” she said.

Depression can extend further into more serious conditions, such as suicidal ideation. O’Neill pointed out that it’s important to reach out and seek help.

“If your depression is leading you to feeling absolute sense of hopeless, helplessness, you’re starting to have those thoughts of suicidal ideation in whatever form they are, and the important thing is to recognize it’s not always ‘oh I just want to harm myself,’ it could be something simliar to ‘it would be OK if I didn’t wake up tomorrow’ or ‘it would be OK if I just put my foot on the gas,’” she said. “It’s recognizing that those thoughts aren’t as blatant as ‘I want to harm myself,’ they can come in different forms and so the most important thing is to seek help.”

She said there are now so many resources now for behavioral health, pointing out the new suicide hotline number, 988.

“The emergency room is always the option,” O’Neill said. “We do have behavioral health specialists that can assist. They can assess, and they can make some determination working with you to come up with what is the best plan of care for you to assist you during this crisis.”

O’Neill wanted to remind those suffering that they should not suffer alone.

“I think the most important thing for people to know is that there is help out there. And you don’t have to suffer alone,” she said. “Again, depression is like any other illness. It’s an illness. And so it’s an illness that we sometimes do need to treat.”

If a person or someone they know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org

Additional information on depression and SAD is available at the National Institute for Mental Health website: nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder.