Seasonal Depression Not As Common As Believed
August 28, 2013

Seasonal Depression May Not Be So Common After All

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

While the winter blues or cabin fever may get you down during the first months of the year, a new study from Oregon State University suggests cold weather does not cause serious depression in most people.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, suggests individuals’ experiences with depressive symptoms are not significantly affected by the weather or time of year.

David Kerr, lead author of the study and a psychologist at OSU, says the findings do not negate the existence of seasonal affected disorder (SAD), but they do call its impact into question.

“It is clear from prior research that SAD exists,” Kerr said. “But our research suggests that what we often think of as the winter blues does not affect people nearly as much as we may think.”

Kerr points out previous research could be flawed by the fact researchers often ask participants to look at their feelings in retrospect.

“People are really good at remembering certain events and information,” he said. “But, unfortunately, we probably can’t accurately recall the timing of day-to-day emotions and symptoms across decades of our lives. These research methods are a problem.”

To avoid this pitfall, Kerr and a team of American researchers culled data from almost 560 participants in Iowa and nearly 210 people in Oregon. Volunteers were asked to complete questionnaires on depressive symptoms several times a year over the course of multiple years. Survey answers were then compared with local weather conditions that occurred at the time participants filled out their reports.

The researchers found approximately 92 percent of Americans reported seasonal-related changes in mood, but only 27 percent reported these changes as being a problem.

“We found a very small effect during the winter months, but it was much more modest than would be expected if seasonal depression were as common as many people think it is,” said co-author Jeff Shaman, a researcher at Columbia University. “We were surprised. With a sample of nearly 800 people and very precise measures of the weather, we expected to see a larger effect.”

In their conclusion, the study authors admitted small pockets or demographics may have been overlooked by their research.

“It remains possible that unobserved subpopulations of individuals with opposing patterns of seasonal sensitivity were masked by our examination of average effects, as suggested by other studies,” they wrote.

Kerr said the perceived impact of SAD may be overstated because of the heightened awareness of the disorder, the commonness of depression in general, and a sincere dislike of winter weather.

“We may not have as much fun, we can feel cooped up and we may be less active in the winter,” Kerr said. “But that’s not the same as long-lasting sadness, hopelessness, and problems with appetite and sleep – real signs of a clinical depression.”

To get relief from SAD, Kerr pointed to recent clinical trials which indicate cognitive behavior therapy, antidepressants, and light box therapy can have a positive effect.

“Fortunately, there are many effective treatments for depression, whether or not it is seasonal,” he said. “Cognitive behavior therapy stands out because it has been shown to keep SAD from returning the next year.”