As colder months roll in, individuals are likely to experience symptoms of isolation and depression at an increased rate as a result of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression.

According to Lionel Phelps, RiverValley Behavioral Health vice president of continuous quality improvement, the organization sees about a 15% increase in clients reaching out for help with symptoms of depression during the months of October through February.

Phelps said the likely culprit is SAD, which affects individuals from late fall to early spring due to longer, darker nights and colder days.

“It is a form of depression that’s related to lack of exposure to sunlight, colder weather, longer, darker nights, just a general feeling of sadness,” he said. “People tend to sleep more or want to sleep more, they eat more carbohydrates, and they socialize less.”

He said while SAD is more prevalent in colder areas with less sunlight, such as Washington, Oregon and Alaska, it is still present in warmer states, and it is already beginning, as days become shorter and night falls earlier in the day.

Phelps said the season triggers the body’s circadian rhythm.

“I think people are much more aware of how the season changes affect them,” he said. “From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense you would eat more in the winter; it’s kind of a hibernation effect. It’s dark, so it kind of triggers the body. It’s all about circadian rhythm — your body thinking it’s dark, so it’s time to sleep.”

SAD, he said, can be treated in many of the same ways other depression symptoms are treated.

Phelps said some methods that may be used include antidepressants, cognitive and behavioral therapy, as well as light therapy, which is done by exposing oneself to bright light for at least 20 minutes each day.

“We encourage people to rearrange the furniture in their house, so that it’s closer to windows and lights, and do that with their offices as well, to exercise more because dopamine seems to kind of offset some of the symptoms, it makes you feel better in general and also gives people more energy, because low energy is very common with SAD,” he said.

Additionally, he said, those who experience symptoms of depression regularly throughout the year can also be affected by SAD.

“Double Depression,” said Phelps, can be harder to treat and, like SAD on its own, can be addressed through therapy, medication and simple lifestyle changes.

“What it does is make it more difficult and more resistant to treatment, but it can be treated, but we have to have people do some lifestyle changes as well, in addition to the other treatments,” he said. “You can really offset a lot of that by just simple lifestyle changes, like timing when you eat and trying to exercise a little bit more.”

Phelps also recommended socializing more during winter months.

“That’s kind of tricky because during the pandemic, you have to be careful with that,” he said. “But it could even be having lunch or dinner with a friend … little things to change how people perceive their situation. Being alone on the couch is just a very dangerous thing for a person who’s depressed.”

Christie Netherton, cnetherton@messenger-inquirer.com, 270-691-7360

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