By Selina Green and Kate Hill.
Has your mood plummeted with the temperature? Planning a beeline between the couch and fridge and not much else over winter?
For residents of parts of southern Australia, which suffer from high rainfall and long, dark days during winter, a simple case of the winter blues can turn into something more serious, according to Swinburne University Professor of Psychology, Greg Murray.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a genuine clinical condition believed to be caused by decreased light exposure in winter.
“It’s a condition where a person has recurrent episodes of diagnosable depression and those episodes fall in winter each year,” he said.
SAD was different to the general mood downturn that many people commonly experienced in winter months, said Professor Murray.
“A significant proportion of people in southern Australia do describe themselves as feeling a bit flat and lethargic in winter,” he said.
“Most of us want to sleep more, put on a bit more weight, are attracted to fatty foods, so there are some biological mechanisms that predispose us to being a little less motivated in winter than at other times of year.
“If your mood is having a marked impact on your ability to function or impacts on your thoughts and feelings about self, seek help.”
But how do you know when your winter blues have crossed the tipping point into full-blown SAD?
Professor Murray asks his patients this question — “Do you get the sense that you can find your way out of this?”
If the answer is no, then it is time to have a chat to a professional and perhaps seek treatment.
“It’s as serious as any other depression and needs to be dealt with quite assertively.”
According to Professor Murray, SAD cases in Australia were rare and he and other clinicians see a handful of cases each year.
“Our best bet in something like 1 in 300 people in Australia may warrant that diagnosis,” he said.
Professor Murray said treatment for the disorder could include those used for other types of depression, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, anti-depressant medication or bright light treatment.
Scepticism still surrounds SAD
First identified in the United States in the 1980s, SAD was known as a seasonal depression and became widely recognised by therapists worldwide.
However, Professor Murray said there had always been some scepticism about the existence of SAD, with some doubting over whether decreased light exposure could trigger changes in mood.
“People are starting to think that a very specific type of depression caused by lack of light in winter might be a bit of an overstatement,” he said.
In fact, there had always been interest into whether the fairer of the seasons — summer and spring — might trigger the same disorder, he said.
“In fact the bible of psychiatry, when it describes SAD, it says that the seasonal pattern can take any form. It could be spring, summer, autumn or winter.”