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Gray winter days hard on those with seasonal depression

During late fall and winter, Lynne Wood is a nomad in her own home, moving from one room to another in search of the sun.

It’s part of her efforts to fight the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

Although Wood, 64, has never been diagnosed, she’s certain she suffers from the mood disorder in which people get depressed when days become shorter and sunlight, scarcer.

During the cold weather, Wood starts each morning with breakfast at the kitchen table. She looks straight ahead, out the large window that was purposely put in place so she can get the best view of the sunbeams she craves.

She and her husband, Bill, also regularly prune the fast-growing Leyland cypress trees around their house.

As Wood’s day proceeds, the Stafford County woman moves her chair and laptop computer to stay under the gaze of the sun. She follows the southern exposure until it eventually leads to the bay window in her bedroom.

There, she builds a pallet of blankets and pillows and takes a power nap, with her body turned toward the golden warmth.

“If I’m stressed, it makes me feel better,” she said. “Being in the sun is addictive.”

WOMEN SUFFER MOST

An estimated half-million people in the United States feel the same seasonal sadness as Wood, according to the Mental Health America website.

The symptoms are similar to depression; the only difference is, they go away when spring returns with warmth and sunshine.

During the grayest times, sufferers cope by getting whatever doses of sunlight they can, as Wood does, or by using a lamp to provide an artificial substitute. Some take antidepressants or vitamin D supplements, and others try to keep their minds occupied—and off the dreary weather that surrounds them.

Three out of four SAD sufferers are women, the Mental Health website said.

“We’re more sensitive than guys,” Wood theorized.

Wood said she has bouts of depression year-round as well as a host of other medical problems, but she starts to feel worse in September, when the sun’s strength weakens.

She’s even more dismal by January and February, when gray days are the norm.

“I’m moody, from major irritability to gloomy and depressed,” Wood said. “I’d just as soon the world ended.”

‘I BECOME A LONER’

Other women in the Fredericksburg feel the same winter misery as Wood.

“I live for color and sun, and I don’t see color during the winter months. I see gray,” said Dwanna Hudson, a 46-year-old mother and stylist in Stafford County. “There’s no leaves on the trees, no green grass, no flowers blooming.”

The lack of color on the outside makes Hudson glum on the inside. She’s normally a people person but doesn’t want to get out of bed or talk to anyone when the weather is wearisome.

“I hibernate like a bear. I become a loner,” she said. “I’d rather shop alone. I don’t want to be bothered. I just go and do what I need to do and come back and live in my little cave.”

Hudson also suffers from depression, and, like Wood, said her symptoms worsen when the days are colder and more overcast.

When Hudson and her family moved to the Fredericksburg in 2004, it was the first time she experienced the changing seasons. Her husband was in the Marine Corps, and the Hudsons had lived in California, Florida and the Carolinas, where the climate was sunnier.

By her third winter in Virginia, she was so upset and moody—“almost like being hormonal”—that she complained to her medical doctor.

Hudson was diagnosed with SAD. She was prescribed 50,000 international units of Vitamin D, which she takes, in capsule form, once a week for six weeks.

‘TRY TO GET THROUGH IT’

Hudson isn’t sure the heavy-duty dose of vitamin D helps. Or the sunlamp, which produces what’s called full-spectrum light, and is prescribed as a form of light therapy.

People sit in front of the lamp, which provides up to 10 times the intensity of normal light, 30 to 60 minutes a day, according to the Summit Medical Group in New Jersey.

Studies show the therapy may suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone that can cause depression and is produced at higher levels in the dark—or when days are shorter.

Like Wood, Hudson puts herself near sunny windows and doors whenever she can. Sometimes, she drives to a sunny spot and sits in the car, facing the sun.

“I just try to get through it the best I can,” Hudson said.

SAD SYMPTOMS

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, are similar to depression. The only difference is they typically show up when the weather gets colder and the sunlight, scarcer. They go into remission in the spring and summer months, according to the Mental Health America website. Symptoms include:

DEPRESSION: Misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, despair and apathy

ANXIETY: Tension and inability to tolerate stress

MOOD CHANGES: Extremes of moods. Some people experience the opposite of SAD and have periods of great excitement and over-activity in spring and summer.

SLEEP PROBLEMS and lethargy, or inability to carry out normal routine

OTHERS: Overeating, especially a craving for starch and sweet foods. Desire to avoid social contact. Decreased interest in sex and physical contact.

TREATMENT FOR SAD

LIGHT THERAPY: This can include sitting in a sunny window or in front of a full-spectrum lamp designed to treat SAD.

One study found an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as 2 hours under bright artificial light, according to the Mental Health America website.

MEDICINE: An antidepressant may help, but may cause other side effects. Vitamin D supplements also are prescribed. Patients should consult their medical doctor or mental health professional.

KEEP BUSY: Lynne Wood of Stafford spends a lot of time gardening and doing yard work in the spring and summer and forces herself to get physical exercise in the winter.

“I do work out to try to manage my moods,” she said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least I try.”

Anna Victoria Reich, 52, of Stafford keeps busy with needlecraft projects or taking care of her dog. Listening to music and doing volunteer work helps, she said.

“I just keep busy to keep my mind off the sad stuff and think of the good things life has,” Reich said. “I am looking forward to the spring season so I can see the green come alive and bring fresh beginnings.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

 

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