The winter blues may not be as big a deal as some experts believe. That's the conclusion of new research out of Oregon State University that has found the number of people who get depressed when it's cold and dreary outside is smaller than you might think.
In a study published online in the Journal of Affective Disorders, OSU researchers found that neither time of year nor weather conditions influenced depressive symptoms.
Lead researcher David Kerr said this study does not question the existence of clinically diagnosed seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, but suggests people may be overestimating the impact that seasons have on depression in general.
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"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, an assistant professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU, said the majority of studies of seasonal depression ask people to look back on their feelings over time.
"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."
For the study, Kerr and his colleagues surveyed 556 Iowans and 206 Oregonians about their depressive symptoms over a period of years. The answers were then compared with local weather conditions, including sunlight intensity, during the time participants filled out the reports.
The results suggest many people are overestimating the impact of wintery skies.
"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 Columbia University researcher Jeff Shaman, a study co-author and a former OSU faculty member. "We were surprised. With a sample of nearly 800 people and very precise measures of the weather, we expected to see a larger effect."
Kerr believes people overplay the winter blues for a few reasons: The high prevalence of depression in general and a legitimate 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."
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Kerr said people who believe they have SAD should get help, noting cognitive behavior therapy, antidepressants, and light box therapy all can help relieve both depression and SAD.
"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."
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