Feeling SAD? Blame it on the winter

The cold months mean sunlight deprivation for some, which can trigger seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression

January 14, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:35 am IST

Feeling low? Uninterested in things? Do the winters seem to be ‘killing’ you? Be assured that you are not alone. In India, more than 10 million people experience similar or the same symptoms of this usually self-diagnosable ailment called Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Its milder version usually resolves itself within months.

SAD occurs in climates where there is less sunlight at certain times of the year. Sometimes, it is mistaken to be a “lighter” version of depression, which is untrue. It is a different version of the same illness and people with SAD are just as ill as people with major depression, according to psychiatrists.

A sub-type

“SAD is not a separate entity of depression but should be seen as a sub-type. This is prevalent in people who are already under the spectrum of depression. Though more prevalent in countries where there are larger spans of winter, we are coming across several cases in North India too,” says Dr. Samir Parikh, director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

Symptoms include fatigue, depression, a feeling of hopelessness and social withdrawal. Women are overwhelmingly more susceptible to SAD than men. Statistics released by the Indian Medical Association (IMA) show that SAD occurs four times more often in women than in men. The age of onset is estimated to be between 18 and 30 years but can affect anyone irrespective of age.

Mood changes

Dr. K.K. Aggarwal, former president of the IMA, says: “The human body, its metabolism, and hormones react to changing seasons. This further leads to changes in mood and behaviour. Just as certain people become irritable and aggressive in summer, others feel low and lethargic during the monsoon and winter.”

The dip in mood apart, they also perceive and have an increased need for sleep and food, particularly carbohydrates, which can eventually lead to weight gain, he adds. Some aspects of the condition are universal. Researchers at the University of Glasgow, U.K., have found too that women are much more likely than men to experience seasonal variations in depressive symptoms, with these symptoms peaking during the winter months.

SAD generally starts in late fall and early winter and goes away during spring and summer. Depressive episodes linked to summer can occur, but are much rarer than winter episodes.

“For people who live with seasonal affective disorder, winters can be very taxing. It does, in some cases like mine, trigger feelings of hopelessness, depression and the cycle of weight gain, says Radha Singh (name changed) who is under treatment for depression and is now trying out yoga to keep SAD under check. “For women, especially those who are housewives, we seem to be faring far worse than men and even other women who have access to life outside their home, kitchen, etc.”

“The most common symptoms with which patients come to us include feeling low, a tendency to overeat or not at all, nausea, difficulty waking up in the morning and concentrating on tasks, withdrawal from social situations, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, and a lack of pleasure in daily activities,” says Dr. Anil Bansal from the Delhi Medical Association (DMA).

Prevention and treatment

A few ways in which people can prevent winter depression include ensuring a healthy and balanced diet. Staying well hydrated is key during the winter months since it gives you more energy, mental clarity and an enhanced digestive function. Getting enough sunlight and engaging in regular outdoor physical exercise are also important. “People have the tendency to isolate themselves from everyone during the winter months. It is extremely important to maintain one’s activity level to avoid depression,” he says.

Treatment for SAD involves enough light exposure, artificial light exposure, sun therapy and drugs, if needed. Artificial light exposure is effective but may take four to six weeks to see a response, although some patients improve within days. Therapy is continued until sufficient and daily natural sunlight exposure is available.


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