Does Your Personality Predispose You to the Winter Blues?
Who develops seasonal bouts of depression may be a matter of personality
Posted Jan 10, 2015
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is one of the most highly prevalent forms of psychological disorder, estimated to affect from 10 to 20 percent of the population at some point in life. Just within the past year alone, 7 percent of adults in the U.S. experience significant and incapacitating symptoms. As it turns out, at least some of these individuals, perhaps as many as 1 percent, suffer from a subtype of MDD known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in which their symptoms appear primarily, if not only, during a particular season of the year, most often the winter.
Other than developing a diagnosable psychological disorder, which involves significant incapacitation, many people find it difficult to get through the winter without at least some distress. These more common “winter blues” may involve a milder set of symptoms, but they nevertheless interfere with the individual’s quality of life.
We know that some demographic factors predict an individual’s susceptibility to developing SAD. Psychologists Kathryn Roecklein and Kelly Rohan (2005) summarized the state of the art at the time. Young adults and women are most likely to experience this disorder, and people living in the Northeast are, not surprisingly, at higher risk compared to people wintering in Florida. Seasonality is distributed fairly normally in the population. SAD, Roecklein and Rohan argue, is an extreme along this continuum.
Seasonal disorders can affect more than mood. According to Roecklein and Rohan, there can be variations in eating disorders, for example. Because SAD is defined only in terms of mood, however, it’s possible that seasonal variations that affect other symptoms may be under-reported.
Returning to the question of who is most likely to experience SAD, or SAD-like symptoms, beyond demographics there may be other individual differences that play a role. Polish psychologists Halszka Oginska and Katarzyna Oginska-Bruchal (2014) decided to investigate this possibility by looking at SAD and its milder form in relation to personality and coping skills.
Participants in the Oginska and Oginska-Bruchal study, 101 adults (57 percent female) averaging 26 years old, were asked to report on their global seasonality, or how much seasonal variation they experienced in their moods and other key indicators (sleep, social activity, weight, appetite, and energy level). They also rated their daily levels of mood and functioning, or chronotype. Both of these scales indicate how sensitive people are to “daily and yearly changes in the external environment associated with the Earth’s rotation and movement.”
The global seasonality scale can be used to document the existence of SAD in various populations, a need particularly relevant for international comparisons. For this purpose, people who state that their variations are “moderately” bad during the worst winter months would be considered to meet at least the screening criteria for SAD. Beyond this, though, a diagnosis of SAD requires a more extensive clinical tool. The global seasonality scale can also identify subclinical levels of SAD, in which people state that they have “mild” symptoms in the winter months.
Although the seasonality scale is useful, Oginska and Oginska-Bruchal believed it didn’t get at the heart of the more general experience of winter depression, or the “blues.” To accomplish this, they developed a Winter Blues Scale that examined 21 symptoms of seasonal depression in the following seven areas: sleepiness, appetite, energy, libido, sociability, “general malaise,” and of course, mood. Participants rated how much they experienced each symptom on a four-point scale.
Apart from the gender differences that parallel much of the research on SADs, in that women were more sensitive to daily and yearly rhythms, the findings supported the notion that personality would make a difference in understanding who is more likely to experience SAD. In particular, people who endorsed having SAD symptoms were higher on the personality trait of openness to experience, the tendency to be sensitive and receptive to new ideas, feelings, and behaviors.
It makes sense that people high in personality openness would also be more likely to have symptoms of SAD. As the authors point out, “interest in the external world augments the reactions to all the changes that are observed” (p. 529). The more attuned you are to the changes going on around you in the world, the more you are likely to be affected by those changes.
Neuroticism also showed a relationship with seasonality in that people with higher neuroticism scores were more likely to report mild or moderate variations in their moods and behavior. As depression and neuroticism are linked, this finding makes sense but also suggests that there may be something specific to the depressive symptoms associated with seasonality.
People with SAD-prone tendencies also showed a tendency to cope with stress through avoidance. As a coping strategy, avoidance involves such behaviors as overeating, escaping into TV watching, or sleeping an excessive amount. This led to an interesting interpretation by the authors. People with symptoms of seasonal affective disorder try to alleviate their misery by engaging in the human equivalent of hibernation.
People high in diurnality—that is, daily alternations in their mood—also showed a greater tendency toward seasonal mood alternations as well. This finding, along with the results from openness to experience, suggests that the people most prone to experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are the ones who are sensitive both to their environments and to their internal states.
The combination of personality (high neuroticism and openness) and sensitivity to variations in the environment are what seem to predispose individuals to symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder. Adding to these personality traits are coping strategies that individuals use to “wait out” the stress—in this case the stress of longer, dark, winter nights. This two-factor model suggests that there are specific ways in which the winter season brings out depressive symptoms in some individuals.
It’s known that light therapy, prescribed under the supervision of a professional, can be a highly effective treatment for SAD. If you or someone you love shows, if not a diagnosable condition, but symptoms of SAD or its less extreme counterpart, the winter blues, this study suggests some useful therapeutic measures.
To help reduce SAD symptoms, cognitive-behavior therapy provides the most potential. As Oginska and Oginska-Bruchal point out, because the avoidance strategies that people may use to cope with their seasonal depression are conscious, they are amenable to therapy, in which individuals learn to identify and then change their dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors.
It doesn’t take years of psychoanalysis to treat symptoms of SAD. Instead, individuals can be helped to change their behaviors by finding positively rewarding activities to engage in during the winter. Cognitively, they can also be taught to examine their thoughts and find more adaptive ways to think about their situation, even if the weather isn’t particularly pleasant.
By learning what makes people susceptible to seasonally depressive symptoms, we can help them find fulfillment not just during the sunny months of the year but all year long. There’s no reason to have to live three quarters of your life in a good mood when you can be taught ways to cope with that other, chillier, one quarter.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Oginska, H., & Oginska-Bruchal, K. (2014). Chronotype and personality factors of predisposition to seasonal affective disorder. Chronobiology International, 31(4), 523-531. doi:10.3109/07420528.2013.874355
Roecklein, K. A., & Rohan, K. J. (2005). Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview and Update. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 2(1), 20–26.
Image source: http://pixabay.com/en/cloudy-weather-snow-snowing-37012/