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Seasonal Affective Disorder Wanes The Spirit

In the early months of winter, the number of daylight hours gets noticeably shorter and the nights longer. A change in season permeates the air with the sweet smell of fallen leaves and the air becomes crisp beckoning winter’s snow. For most people, it’s a joyous time of year when family and friends gather to spread holiday cheer. Yet for others, a waning spirit conjures feelings of dread as winter draws near.

December Is Seasonal Depression Awareness Month

December is Seasonal Depression Awareness Month when healthcare professionals see an increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for unexplained symptoms of depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that most commonly occurs during the winter months. In the United States, 5 percent of the population experience symptoms of SAD that can include feelings of:

  • Sadness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Loss of pleasure and energy
  • Worthlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability or anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Seemingly uncontrollable urges to eat sugar and high-carbohydrate foods

The first symptoms of SAD usually occur in adulthood and are more frequently suffered by women. The severity of the syndrome often increases with geographical latitude, as well as prevalence, increasing from 5 percent to 10 percent of the population. Without treatment, the result can lead to weight gain, depression and strained relationships. When combined with a history of trauma and domestic violence, SAD can be deadly.

Domestic Violence and SAD

American Indian and Alaska Native women experience some of the highest rates of physical and sexual violence in the nation. However, it is important to note that before colonization, abuse and domestic violence were unseen in tribal communities. Today, more than 4 in 5 Native women experience violence in their lifetime.

Domestic and dating violence happens when an intimate partner uses a repetitive pattern of abuse to maintain power and control over their partner. The abuse can physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a person from acting freely, or force them to behave in ways they do not want. These tendencies may become more prevalent with the onset of seasonal depression.

The impact of SAD may be seen in abusive partners attempting to exert more control over their partner. Victim-survivors may feel confused, afraid, angry and/or even trapped. They may blame themselves for what is happening. When combined with the experience of SAD, victim survivors can become overwhelmed by feelings of sadness.

High Rates of Suicide

Depression can lead to thoughts of suicide. Nationwide, American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) suffer the highest rates of suicide than any other racial/ethnic group. Study after study, decade after decade, suicide rates continue to rise. The ramifications of trauma and depression are felt by loved ones, family, friends and even co-workers.

Light Therapy May Help

The cause of SAD is unknown, but the onset is linked to light deprivation associated with winter’s shorter days and longer nights. Seasonal depression caused by light deprivation can be mitigated using artificial light. Light therapy using bright light to mimic natural outdoor light affects brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep – thus easing symptoms of SAD and other types of depression, sleep disorders and conditions.

Traditional Methods

First and foremost, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help with the symptoms of seasonal depression. A routine schedule is key to maintaining a well-balanced circadian rhythm. Native people can also benefit from traditional teachings, practices and ceremonies as well as seeking out culturally-sensitive health providers. Here are some tips to help:

  • Get showered and get dressed. Use traditional medicines or aromatic lavender in a bath or enjoy a DIY facial. Lay down tobacco and/or smudge with sage. Wearing bright, colorful and comfortable clothing can impact your mood.
  • Brighten your environment. Open blinds and sit closer to bright windows.
  • Find time to move daily for at least thirty minutes. Search YouTube videos for a Pow-wow dance or yoga class and if all else fails, turn up the radio and dance like no one is watching. Learn how to traditional dance!
  • Develop a self-care toolkit. A lot of successful self-care strategies involve a sensory component (feel, taste, smell, hear, see) such as using a soft blanket, drinking hot cocoa, or burning a scented candle while looking at old photo albums. Help your child to create a comfort box (use a shoe-box or bin they can decorate) and fill it with comforting items to use when they feel overwhelmed. Promote connectivity with Mother Earth by adding traditional medicines such as sage, sweetgrass or cedar.
  • Share traditional seasonal teachings with relatives and friends
  • Seek the advice of a healthcare professional.

StrongHearts Can Help

At StrongHearts, we know that for victim-survivors the holidays can add even more strain or stress to their lives. We know that SAD may: hinder healthy relationships, contribute to unhealthy relationships, or even increase abusive behaviors or increase the severity of abuse in abusive relationships. If you need to talk about your relationship, StrongHearts can help.

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