SAD is no way to face new year
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Migratory birds have the right idea: When cold weather approaches, they head south.
We tend to hang around a little longer, travel agent Candice Bentz said.
"January and February are always gloomy and by early February many are ready to fly south for Florida, the Caribbean and cruises," said Ms. Bentz of Worldview Travel in Washington.
Ruth Nagy, managing director of travel operations for AAA East Central, which includes an Upper St. Clair office, said the weather is everything when it comes to flying south. "If we have a light winter, not many are calling to say 'get me out of this,' " she noted. "But if we have a snowy, cold January, they will call in early February and tell us 'get me to the sunshine.' "
Ms. Nagy said that generally means, for Pittsburghers, going to Florida, Arizona, Las Vegas and the Caribbean."
For many, it can be a long, hard winter in more ways than just having to shovel snow.
For those firmly planted in the 'Burgh as temperatures drop and dreary days descend, succumbing to so-called "cabin fever" can ground their spirits.
Guillermo Borrero, a psychiatrist on the staff of Jefferson Regional Medical Center, said the notion of cabin fever -- or what used to be called "stir crazy" -- was recorded as far back as the 19th century.
Dr. Borrero said that in winter, people become isolated when they are confronted with the harsh realities of frigid temperatures -- which often limit visits with family and friends -- and the deprivation of certain liberties, such as spending time outdoors and enjoying the soothing benefits of sunlight.
"Most can cope with the absence of light," he said. "But for those with depression disorders it is harder."
Besides the isolation factor, the likelihood of falling victim to cabin fever is heightened if a sad anniversary date is marked during the winter, or if memories of lost loved ones occur when winter weather keeps many indoors.
And, that winter follows on the heels of the festive holidays, often compounds the problem, Dr. Borrero said.
"Once the presents, food and drinks are over and guests have departed, an individual is bound to experience a sense of emptiness," he noted. "To add to this anti-climactic experience, the average individual will have to face the financial realities of post-holidays and that the fast pace of the holidays has now turned to a slowdown creates a quite a letdown," he said.
His tips for overcoming cabin fever include:
• Build on the holiday spirit, such as staying active -- even when snowed in -- by launching a family project
• Exercise and watch diet
• Open blinds and curtains to get light
• Refuse to feel negative, and "give a little bit of your time to others,'' he said, to fight the malaise.
But for about 1 to 3 percent of adults, mostly women, a more serious version of "winter blues" is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a subtype of major depression with a component rooted in biology.
SAD is associated with increases in appetite, weight gain, oversleeping, carbohydrate craving and intense daytime sleepiness, in spite of increased sleep.
While SAD's cause is unknown, a popular theory is that it is a circadian rhythm disorder, or a disruption in the internal body clock caused by factors such as time zone changes and light deprivation.
As the days get shorter, the brain's clock gets off track, becoming less efficient at regulating sleep, weight and mood.
The standard first-line treatment for SAD is light therapy, and usually with light boxes in which the light is 20 times brighter than normal indoor light.
"Once a diagnosis of SAD has been confirmed, physicians should discuss options with their patients in order to match appropriate and acceptable treatments, whether light therapy or medication," Dr. Borrero said.
First Published January 3, 2013 5:00 am