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Don’t be SAD: How nurses can stop seasonal depression before it starts

As the days get shorter, many people find themselves experiencing more than just ‘winter blues’
In a regular year, about 6% of American adults experience Seasonal Affective Disorder in its full-blown form. This winter, COVID-19 pandemic is expected to worsen it. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In a regular year, about 6% of American adults experience Seasonal Affective Disorder in its full-blown form. This winter, COVID-19 pandemic is expected to worsen it. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Although you might cringe when you hear stores playing Christmas carols in October, there is one time when it really pays to get a jump on the season.

While everyone should be aware of the potential for seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD, and its pitfalls, nurses have even more incentive.

On his website, Norman Rosenthal, the doctor who first identified SAD and suggested solutions in the 1980s, describes the causes of SAD almost as if he had nurses in mind. “Besides the lack of environmental light, which is a major cause of SAD, there are two other leading causes: biological predisposition and stress,” Rosenthal said. “People who are predisposed to developing SAD include those with family members with the condition, as well as other forms of depression. In addition, gender is a factor. Women are about four times as likely to develop SAD as are men.”

And if you have this tendency to develop SAD, stress is extra tough for you in the short-day darkness of winter, Rosenthal added. "During the winter months, people with SAD are less able to handle stress than they are at other times of year. For example, having to get to work early in the morning, to work long hours or to meet deadlines are all particularly stressful for those with a tendency to develop SAD."

But even if a nurse has all the risk factors, it's possible to diminish the effects or even avoid it altogether. The two keys are awareness and beginning anti-SAD strategies before the symptoms set in.

Here are some tips to follow:

Acknowledge it's a real thing. Jacquelyn Northcutt Mantooth, a school-based therapist in Tennessee who holds a Master's in Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, says that like all mental health issues, "it's important to acknowledge that Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing and can happen to anyone."

Boost your vitamin D intake. “Many people with SAD and S-SAD have insufficient or deficient levels of Vitamin D, and although no further studies have confirmed the findings, research investigating this association suggests that taking 100,000 IU daily may improve their symptoms,” according to an overview published in 2015. Taking Vitamin D before winter darkness sets in may help prevent symptoms of depression.

Create a SAD safety net. People need to have a plan in case they feel their mental health declining, Mantooth added. “We don’t buy insurance when our house is on fire,” she said. “We don’t start a savings account when we’re struggling, and we don’t need to be creating a mental health plan when we’re hitting an emotional low. Having a mental health plan is a great safety net for SAD or any other disruptions that can occur.”

Do you have seasonal affective disorder?

HelpGuide suggests measuring your own mental health against this checklist to determine if you may have experienced SAD in the past or are experiencing it now. "The reduced light, warmth, and color of winter leaves lots of people feeling a little more melancholy or tired—and isn't necessarily something to worry about," the nonprofit explained. "But if your symptoms crop up around the same time each year, have a real impact on your quality of life, and improve when the seasons change, you may have seasonal affective disorder."

Here are the symptoms HelpGuide advises people to be aware of:

– You no longer enjoy the same activities or outings.

– You make every attempt to avoid people and socializing.

– You've lost interest in sex or physical expressions of affection.

– You feel like sleeping all the time, or the reverse is true and you can never seem to sleep.

– You're so fatigued, you have a tough time completing daily tasks.

– Your appetite has shifted, especially towards craving foods with lots of sugar and starch.

– You've gained weight.

– You're experiencing feelings of guilt or sadness.

– You're down on yourself and belittle your own efforts.

– You're constantly stressed out or tense.

To prevent the onset of SAD, or at least downgrade it to more manageable “winter blues,” Rosenthal advocated eating a diet made up of “clean” foods, including seasonal vegetables, unprocessed foods, complex carbohydrates and lots of lean protein, like steamed fish. He also suggested SAD sufferers plan a midwinter trip somewhere sunny.

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