Let’s face it: it’s kind of depressing when the days start getting shorter, the sun goes down earlier, and the weather begins to turn chilly. But differentiating between what we anecdotally call the “winter blues” and a diagnosable “seasonal depression can be tricky.” Here are some ways to tell the difference.
First, understand that “seasonal depression” in and of itself is not an actual psychological diagnosis. Rather, it is a form of Major Depressive Disorder, known as Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern. This means that, in order to diagnostically qualify, you must actually first meet the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, which includes five the following:
· Depressed mood most of the day, every day.
· Lack of interest or pleasure in previously pleasurable activities.
· Significant weight loss or weight gain.
· Trouble sleeping or trouble getting to sleep on a daily basis.
· Fatigue or loss of energy every day.
· Motor agitation such as fidgeting or lethargy.
· Decreased ability to concentrate on a daily basis.
· Thoughts of suicide, including plan.
In order for these symptoms to mean you have “seasonal depression,” they must also follow a seasonal pattern, where you have experienced the following:
· A regular and noticeable temporal relationship between the onset of depressive symptoms and the time of year.
· The depressive symptoms disappear at the onset of a new season (for example, the depression disappears in spring.)
· Two major depressive episodes in the last two years that demonstrate the seasonal relationship.
· The seasonal depressive episodes outnumber nonseasonal depressive episodes.
*As always, please do not self-diagnose. This information is provided merely as a guideline to help you understand what diagnostically qualifies as a seasonal pattern of depression.
What we can conclude from the above information is that it can be very difficult to distinguish between diagnosable seasonal depression and a normal human response to the changing seasons. For many people, there is an emotional response to shorter days and colder temperatures. This does not necessarily signify a diagnosable or clinical type of depression. Rather, it may simply be a normal response to environmental conditions. This is not to say that there is no validity to the idea that seasonal change can affect mood but, rather, that we should be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that this mood change is equivalent to clinical depression.
If you feel that you do potentially fit the criteria for a seasonal pattern of Major Depressive Disorder, it is important to meet with a psychotherapist (talk therapist) and a psychiatrist (medication prescriber) who can help you to navigate seasonal patterns of depression and review treatment options. If what you experience is more akin to a “normal” response to seasonal changes, it is important to consider what you can do to keep yourself healthy, emotionally and physically, during the fall and winter months. During times when our emotions are more vulnerable to feelings of sadness and discomfort, our self-care becomes vitally important. If, for example, you know that you tend to feel “down” during the winter, you might consider what activities bring you joy, provide healthy distraction, and keep you engaged. But here is the great news about seasons: they are impermanent, cyclical, and they pass. So, too, do our feelings of discomfort.
Now that you understand the difference between Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern and the “winter blues,” here are some things to consider as the seasons change:
· It is normal to experience a range of emotions, some of which are affected and influenced by external forces, such as the weather or the season.
· Your mood can feel lower in the colder months and not necessarily mean you have a depressive disorder.
· Activities like meditation, mindfulness and physical exercise are ways to ensure that mood remains stable regardless of seasonal conditions.
· Mental health professionals such as therapists and psychiatrists can help you to determine if you are experiencing a diagnosable form of depression.
By Phil Lane, MSW, LCSW
This post is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical diagnosis or treatment. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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