Winter Blues? It Might Be Seasonal Affective Disorder
The start of the winter season can bring up a lot of feelings for people. The gathering of family and friends, the planning of vacations, and the cooking and gift-giving may bring some people to rejoice during the holidays, but it can be a stressful time for others. On top of holiday-related stress, daylight savings time kicks off a new schedule in the fall, making the workday feel longer when you watch from your desk as the sun starts to set before 5 pm. Shorter days and less daylight can make us feel more tired, moody, and willing to curl up on the couch instead of going out.
For some people, the beginning of fall and into the winter season can spark depressive symptoms unrelated to the actual events that occur during these seasons. So if you’re feeling tired, emotionally and energetically low, have difficulty concentrating or finding pleasure in things you used to enjoy, it’s not just winter blues, it may be a condition called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is exactly what it sounds like; an emotional disorder affected by seasons. It’s a type of depression characterized by the same symptoms of depressive disorders, only this depression appears in specific seasons of the year. For most people with SAD, that’s fall and winter, but for others, it may be spring and summer. SAD typically begins and ends around the same time each year.
Common symptoms of SAD are parallel to that of other types of depression. They include:
• Feeling depressed, hopeless, or worthless
• Feeling sluggish or agitated
• Having low energy
• Difficulty concentrating
• Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
• Sleep problems
• Changes in appetite or weight
• Thoughts of death or suicide
SAD does have disorder-specific symptoms too. For the winter months, they include:
• Hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
• Overeating/weight gain
• Low energy
• Heaviness in arms and legs
• Cravings for carbohydrates
• Social withdrawal
For the summer season, symptoms may include:
• Poor appetite/weight loss
Though the cause of SAD is unknown, some factors can give us a clue of what may be contributing to the disorder. The drop in sunlight during winter months can cause decreased levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, and increased levels of melatonin, a hormone which affects sleep patterns. Your circadian rhythm or biological clock, can also be disrupted when there is reduced sunlight. This along with Vitamin D deficiencies can all play a role in the various causes of SAD.
For SAD, attributes that increase your risk do exist. It’s important to pay attention to signs and symptoms early on if you:
• Are female and young: SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than in men. Younger adults also have a higher risk of SAD.
• Live far from the equator: SAD is more common in people who live farther away from the equator, either far north or far south.
• Have a family history of SAD or other types of depression
• Have pre-existing depression or bipolar disorder
Common treatment types for SAD overlap with treatments for other mental health disorders. Taking medication, specifically antidepressants such as SSRIS (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), has proven to be effective in treating SAD. Psychotherapy is an effective treatment that helps people learn coping strategies and relaxation techniques to reduce symptoms of SAD. Light therapy is also commonly used to help treat SAD. In light therapy, a person is exposed daily to bright light that mimics the sun from a box or lamp, triggering brain chemicals that affect mood.
If your symptoms of SAD are disrupting your day-to-day life and normal functioning, it may be time to reach out to a health professional. The winter doesn’t have to signal a time of hibernation and sadness. Getting treatment for SAD can help you jump back into the swing of things this holiday season.
Find a health professional to help manage depression here.