As I write this, rain is falling. I watch it drumming the leaves and ground outside my window. The sky is so dark it seems like dusk, although it’s the middle of the day. Summer is fading away and darker and shorter days are upon us. It’s easy to let our mood turn gloomy like the weather.
I often hear from people they become depressed in the fall and winter months. Some actually dread the turning of color in the fall leaves, as this is a warning sign their mood will soon be turning as well. I’m often asked about why many feel more “down” in the winter. Yet, while depression is the most understood and researched of all mental health issues, we still don’t have definitive answers about why some people are depressed and others aren’t, or why some people get depressed in the winter and others don’t, or why some people get better with medications and treatment and others don’t.
Depression has been called the “common cold,” of mental illness. There are 350 million people worldwide, who now report experiencing depression at points in their lifetime. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control interviewed thousands of people in 2010 and 9 percent of Americans reported feeling depressed occasionally, while 3.4 percent felt seriously depressed.
Up until a few years ago wintertime depression was understood as sensitivity to exposure to sunshine; so, as the amount of sunshine decreases in the fall and winter, depression emerges. Additionally, when the warmth and sunshine of summer retreat, we also retreat, spending less time outside, less time in outdoor activities, and less time with others. This, in turn, naturally dampens our mood, as these summer activities are known to increase happiness.
Isolation, lack of exercise, less exposure to the sun, stress and trauma, for years these factors have been known to cause depression, year round, and have been a major focus in treatment of depression. Yet, despite better treatment for depression, the amount of people becoming depressed has not subsided and researchers realized they were missing something. In the last three years, our understanding of depression has taken a new turn with the use of brain scans and more advanced research techniques. Overall, the results provide evidence depression is largely biologically based, and depression is a complex illness.
For instance, researcher have recently identified certain genetic links, which are inherited from parents, that make some people more likely to feel depressed after stress, while others with different genetics ‘roll with the punches’ after similar experiences. Brain scans are also showing us certain parts of the brain are different in those who suffer from depression. Some people with depression have a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain known to control emotion and memory. Similarly, serotonin, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter in the body, exists in smaller amounts in those who are depressed compared to those who are not depressed.
Difficulty sleeping has long been one of the hallmark symptoms of depression. In the last two years, research is showing insomnia and not getting enough sleep can actually cause depression in some people. Ongoing stress, experiencing trauma, circadian rhythms, the size of the amygdala (brain center), and cytokines and monoamines, are all biological factors currently being studied because researchers think these factors are also related to depression.
As mental health research becomes clearer about the causes of, and best treatments for, depression, it’s important for people to understand depression is a real and serious issue that’s much more biologically based than we realized. If you’re depressed, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You need to treat it like any other illness.
Medication, therapy, and a combination of both, are highly likely to decrease depression, and, to increase happiness. Regular exercise, spending time outdoors, spending time with friends and family, getting enough sleep, meditating and mindfulness, decreasing stress, and developing optimism, are coping skills that help with most illnesses, and help very much with depression.
In the Sierras, the fall and winter months are a time when Mother Nature focuses on revival: plants focus less on creating flowers and leaves, and instead, grow their roots deeper and stronger. This helps them weather future storms and droughts. If you’re someone who suffers with depression, don’t fear the winter. Instead, use it as a time to nurture yourself by developing these coping skills so you feel stronger and happier to deal with what life brings you down the road.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.