Yoga instructor Caron Carnahan leads a hatha yoga session at Grove City YMCA. The goal of the sessions is to help participants manage seasonal moods and calm tension caused by seasonal stressors.

As the familiar Christmas carol goes, “‘Tis the season to be jolly.”

But for some Americans, it can also be the season to feel depressed and lethargic.

Due to shorter days and longer nights in the winter months, people may experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), more commonly known as seasonal depression.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, as many as 10 to 20 percent of Americans have a mild form of SAD, although Sue Burke, licensed clinical social worker, said she believes the number may be much higher.

“It doesn’t always get diagnosed as SAD even though it really is,” Burke explained. “(SAD) may be underreported since a lot of people go to their family doctor in the fall and get put on medication and the doctor never specifically calls it SAD.”

The symptoms of SAD include over-sleeping, daytime fatigue, weight gain, lack of interest in normal activities and social withdrawal, according to Laura Buck, a licensed clinical social worker at Paoletta Psychology Services in Mercer.

Buck said SAD can range from mild to severe, but typically, people feel a mild to moderate effect during the winter months.

“It begins in the fall, around October and lasts until May,” Buck explained. “There is less light during the winter months (which causes SAD).”

“I liken it to a hibernation stage,” Burke added. “There are a couple aspects in a physical sense, as a person becomes more tired, has less energy and is more sedentary. They don’t want to walk and do things. They’re not as motivated to do fun things and prefer to just sit around.”

Burke, who owns Burke Counseling Services Inc. in Grove City, said people may also feel a “heightened amount of depressive symptoms” as “hopelessness kicks in to higher gear.”

Buck added that people who suffer from depression year-round can also be affected by SAD.

“It’s not uncommon for a lot of people struggling with depression to feel worse in these months, “ Buck said.

“Another complicating factor is that there are two major holidays during the lack of light stage,” Burke added. “Thanksgiving and Christmas can be depressing times for people in addition to SAD because it might be a time of reminiscing of loss.”

According to Burke, SAD can be treated with proper medication and people do not have to suffer during the holidays.

“The good news is that it’s treatable and you don’t have to feel miserable all winter,” Burke said. “Medication often times just needs to be adjusted (for people already on medication) and if they are not on medication yet, then they need to get started.”

While Buck acknowledged that antidepressants could be helpful to patients, she said light therapy treatment has also proven to be helpful in battling SAD.

According to Buck, in light therapy treatment, patients sit in front of a bright fluorescent lamp for 20 to 60 minutes per day in order to compensate for the lack of natural sunlight in winter.

Buck also said exercise and staying active were good ways to combat SAD.

“During the sunny winter days, open your curtains and also get outside,” she said.

“Go out for a walk and get outside,” Burke said. “In addition, there are light bulbs that replicate natural sunlight and people can put those in areas of house that they spend some time each day.”

Burke said people should not just rely on getting enough light – counseling and medication are also important.

“I don’t think light therapy alone is enough. I don’t think medication is enough. I don’t think counseling is enough,” Burke said. “It’s a three-part treatment.”

According to Burke, it is not uncommon for people to panic during the winter because they do not understand why they are feeling depressed.

“Some people get agitated because they don’t understand why two weeks ago they felt fine, nothing bad has happened, and now they don’t feel well at all,” Burke said. “It’s scary until they understand what’s happening in their body.”

Treatment for SAD can be as quick as a few visits to the family doctor, as well as attending a couple counseling sessions – just as long as there are no underlying issues, Burke said.

“(People suffering from SAD) need to get checked by their family doctor to get medication, and they also need to go to counseling to make sure their thinking patterns and behavioral patterns are not making the condition worse,” Burke said.

According to Burke, diagnosing SAD can be difficult since there are many mitigating factors to attribute to a person’s depression.

“If we have a new client we don’t know that well and (something stressful) happened (to the client) in October, it would look like natural onset of regular depression due to difficult stress in life,” Burke explained. “It might not be until next October when (the client) came back (with the same symptoms) and no stressor that we would think of SAD.”

According to Burke, having a strong social support system is very important in battling SAD as well as other forms of depression.

“Whether it’s through journaling, calling a friend or listening to music, we help a person come up with coping list so that they don’t feel overwhelmed,” Burke said.

“I definitely encourage people to talk with mental health professionals to seek an assessment,” Buck added.

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