With shorter days and colder temperatures, some people find themselves feeling a bit down during the winter season. If you’re tired, stressed or feeling emotionally heavy, how do you know if it’s the winter blues or something more, like depression? Mahmood Darr, MD, an internal medicine physician with ProMedica Physicians, addresses depression and potential signs that you may need to talk with your doctor.
It helps to understand that there are two types of depression: endogenous depression and reactive depression. Endogenous depression is due to serotonin imbalances in the brain, and tends to be persistent regardless of the season or a person’s short-term circumstances. Many times, it’s hereditary and occurs genetically in families.
Reactive depression, on the other hand, has a shorter lifespan. “This can happen as a result of bereavement, employment problems, marital problems or relationship issues,” explained Dr. Darr. “You can link up the symptoms to an event that happened and explore previous events in a person’s life to see if the symptoms also occurred at those times.”
Then, there are those times when we just feel down. This may happen once or twice a year at a time that reminds a person of a significant life event, such as the loss of a spouse or a parent. Or, they experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) due to the change in light exposure, temperature variations and change in lifestyle from season to season.
“Most people have some element of SAD,” said Dr. Darr. If someone who finds gardening to be therapeutic can’t do that in the winter, or they can’t get in their walks that keep them happy, not being able to do those things can get them feeling down.”
Treating the blues vs. depression
If you’re just feeling down or heavy, Dr. Darr recommends starting with self-care. Getting good sleep, eating healthy and reaching out to your friends and support systems are essential in difficult times. For SAD, specifically, regulating sleep with a consistent schedule or with the help of melatonin may be beneficial. For reactive depression, therapy, understanding the situation and using coping mechanisms may help.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the support structure to help in difficult times.
“Often these things aren’t present this day and age. Families are far apart, so people don’t have that close-knit community. Loneliness is a big factor, especially with the elderly,” said Dr. Darr. “If you have a good support system and talking with them helps, then use them. You don’t always have to go to your doctor. But if you’re embarrassed or you don’t have anyone to talk to, then talk to your doctor.”
Even if you have a strong support network, Dr. Darr recommends seeing your doctor if your daily life and ability to function is affected.
“The first symptoms of depression include a feeling of excessive fatigue, losing interest in the things that you normally enjoy, taking days off, calling in sick, not taking care of your children the way you used to or you’re not paying attention to your family or your spouse,” explained Dr. Darr.
Eating and sleep can also be affected. “If you’re depressed, you may be sleeping excessively or you may not be sleeping well,” Dr. Darr said. “Often you see people have very shallow sleep where they wake up a couple of times at night or they wake up in the morning and do not have their usual energy.”
People with depression may hurt themselves through an unhealthy use of over-the-counter medications or by making superficial cuts on their body. As with many conditions, there are varying degrees of depression and a screening by a healthcare provider can help determine the best course of treatment. However, if someone is experiencing destructive thoughts toward themselves or others, it’s a sign that urgent help is needed.
The key question is if the way you are feeling is affecting your daily life.
“I would recommend talking to your doctor if it’s affecting your functionality,” said Dr. Darr. “If you’re thinking ‘I have to do something about this; I can’t function, I’m going to lose my job,’ it’s time to see a professional who is used to seeing these types of cases.”