What You Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder and PPD -postpartumprogress.com

It has taken me a while to get this post to all of you. Each time that I have tried to sit down and put thought and experience onto paper, I have felt stumped by lacking creativity. Perhaps it is the transition back from the holidays, I have wondered. Or the demands of a developing two-and-a-half-year-old. Or a busy practice and paperwork on my desk. Or the driving desire to get out of my office and release some steam outside only to be reminded that it is wet and gray and too cold out there for my running preference.

Or, as Katherine reminded me, it might just be that it is the middle of winter.

Winter. It can be a tough time for all of us. The days get shorter and colder, the weather often chaotic, the roads sometimes dangerous, the gas bills go up. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be harder to find and usually become more expensive in these long months. Runny noses abound and the flu seems to be around every corner. The air gets drier, our skin cracks, and we often are not drinking enough water. Children tend to go stir crazy when the playtime outdoors is limited. And, if we do attempt to get those little ones outside, the efforts at managing struggling kiddos into appropriate layers can feel for naught when red-cheeked toddlers decide that they are cold and wet after only a few minutes of play.

Winter tends to be a time when our neighbors are rarely seen, when communities are harder to access, and when we find ourselves spending more time at home. We tend to loose our patience more. We tend to have a harder time concentrating. We often have less energy. We feel less creative. We might, even, suffer from a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

While there are certainly numerous places in the world where winters are mild and seasons non-existent, daylight levels lessen in the winter months unless you are living on or very near to the equator. Less daylight can lead to an increase in melatonin production that, in turn, can increase feelings of lethargy. Sunlight is also a major source of the vitamin D that we receive, and decreases in Vitamin D have been associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

It is highly common for people to spend more time sleeping in the winter months, for daytime fatigue to set in, appetites to increase, and moods to dampen. Think hibernation. Often, as the days become shorter and darker and the weather less accommodating, many of us find ourselves wishing that we could crawl into a cave and hibernate with the bears.

Oh, and if you are struggling with postpartum depression or another postpartum mood and anxiety disorder, winters can feel long and intolerable.

I see the effects of the overlap between postpartum depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—or what I will call “winter blues”—in my private psychotherapy practice. The phone rings more and the referrals come in more frequently. And this makes sense, doesn’t it? We know that the key to a healthy postpartum experience and often the important pieces of a mom’s recovery involve community support, exercise, healthy nutrition and adequate water intake, fresh air and breath, and rest. 

Consider this image:

A new mom lives in an area where the winter is long and dark and cold. She has recently given birth and her partner has returned to work. Biologically, she is craving more sleep and winter fatigue has set in, but her baby is fussy and she is unable to get the rest that she so much needs and desires. The roads are slippery and her increasing anxiety is making it feel nearly impossible to venture out to see friends, or get to that moms group she has been considering, or try the day care at the gym so that she can finally get some exercise. It is too cold and wet to walk outside as she worries about her baby in such weather. Her refrigerator is empty and although she knows that healthy food and fresh vegetables might make a difference in how she feels, she doubts that she will ever manage the shop that is required for this. Her skin is dry and she knows that she would benefit from drinking more water, but the cold weather makes it less desirable to do so. Her lacking perspective is making these months feel like forever, and she feels entirely unable to imagine that these long months will ever end. 

The National Institute of Health (NIH) lists the following as symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

  • Increased appetite with weight gain (weight loss is more common with other forms of depression)
  • Increased sleep and daytime sleepiness (too little sleep is more common with other forms of depression)
  • Less energy and ability to concentrate in the afternoon
  • Loss of interest in work or other activities
  • Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unhappiness and irritability

For women who are caring for newborns during these months, symptoms of PPD and SAD can combine to create a perfect storm of distress. 

– Kate Kripke