In A Better You, Depression, Syndromes & Disorders

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

During the winter months, the shorter days and longer dark periods of night leave some feeling the winter blues. Some think they are just feeling down because of depression related to the holidays, which aren’t always jolly for everyone. Other people think this feeling is a result of not being able to be as physically active during the cold winter months. However, it is a very real condition that leaves people feeling depressed. Discover more about Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Often referred to as SAD, seasonal affective disorder is a seasonal depression. In fact, it can occur during any of the seasons. However, according to the National Institute of Health, SAD usually strikes individuals during the winter months due to the lack of sunlight and decreased activity, both social and physical.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

The winter blues is characterized by a serious change of mood by individuals who end up sleeping too much while experiencing a lack of energy. The person may feel depressed and unable to cope with everyday circumstances. The symptoms of SAD begin in the end of fall and escalate throughout the winter months, peaking by January when the weather is coldest around the nation. This also correlates with the end of the holiday season, which is seen by some as the end of the happiest time of year. The sudden lack of social activities and festivities can increase the feelings of isolation, especially for those living in rural or cold climates.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder

For individuals who experience SAD in the winter, the Mayo Clinic suggests that it has something to do with a lack of sunlight and exposure to daylight hours. According to their studies, SAD is related to a chemical imbalance of the brain. The imbalance stems from a shorter number of hours of daylight. This is commonly the situation for most people around the world during the winter months when the days are shorter due to the rotation of the earth. This is also what causes countries to have winter weather of colder temperatures, snow and ice. The changes in sunlight has an effect on seasonal activities of all animals and mammals including humans. The main effect of this change of season for humans is the change of the amount of light we get. Individuals’ circadian rhythm also known as the biological internal clock is out of whack from their regular routine, creating an inability to sleep and work on a regular schedule.

Another effect of this change of routine is related to melatonin, which is called the sleep hormone. Those who experience depression are more likely to have fluctuations in melatonin production. For example, in the times of darkness, such as during winter months or due to a lack of light, melatonin is produced more frequently. While melatonin can help individuals sleep better at night, having this hormone produced throughout the waking hours causes sluggishness, sleepiness and a general feeling of lethargy. These are all symptoms of depression, as well as of seasonal affective disorder. In order to remedy this situation the use of bright lights has been shown to have a positive effect on those experiencing SAD.

Who is Likely to Have SAD?

According to WebMD, SAD is more common in certain individuals in comparison to others. For instance, those individuals who are female are more likely to experience this form of depression in comparison to males. This may be related to the hormonal fluctuations of females due to their menstrual cycle, which could create times of moodiness that could stem into SAD. Those individuals who live the furthest away from the equator, such as those in the northernmost and southernmost parts of the globe the Falkland Islands, Russia and Alaska, are more likely to have seasonal affective disorder. This is because these countries have the shortest amount of sunlight and their days are super short. As a result, these individuals experience great darkness and a lack of naturally developed vitamin D.

Age is a factor, as well, with SAD seasonal affective disorder. Those individuals who are in their teens are most likely to experience SAD for the first time during this age period. As people get older, their chance of experiencing seasonal affective disorder for the first time decreases with each year. However, those who do get SAD will do so most commonly from the ages of 15 to 55. If you are living with someone who has seasonal affective disorder you will most likely experience it also.

Other symptoms for SAD include:

  • A general feeling of hopelessness marked by a lack of optimism
  • Weight gain due to an increased appetite, which can be compounded with the overabundance of holiday treats during the winter season
  • Adversely, some experience weight loss due to a lack of appetite related to this form of depression
  • Sleeping too much to the point where it affects the individual’s regular routine and leaves them in a mental fog when they are awake
  • A lack of sleep due to anxiety, nervousness and worrying about things
  • A lack of energy leaving the individual with the inability to concentrate on everyday tasks
  • A lack of interest in activities, hobbies, work-related tasks or family time
  • Being sluggish in their movements, often related to overeating and oversleeping
  • Being socially withdrawn or unable to meet social commitments due to feelings of depression or anxiety
  • Having a marked level of irritability or unhappiness that is more so than normal

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can lead to a long-term depression extending past the winter months. For some SAD will strike in both winter and summer months, and it can develop or is related to an existing bipolar disorder. The key for those individuals who experience SAD in these seasons annually is to visit a medical professional who can help them regulate the condition to avoid even more issues. For some, SAD can lead to thoughts and actions of suicide.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

Fortunately there are several treatments for seasonal affective disorder that range from things you can do at home to seeing a professional. One of the most common ways to treat this type of depression is to purchase a seasonal affective disorder lamp. Using seasonal affective disorder lights allows the affected individual to decrease the amount of melatonin produced during waking hours. For individuals who are having trouble staying awake or who are experiencing mental fog leaving them depressed and inattentive, these lamps can create a positive environment.

Some colleges and hospitals use this type of lighting in order to increase the levels of energy and boost the moods of students and patients respectively. Thanks to the popularity of the seasonal affective disorder light, you can find these everywhere from department stores to public buildings accessible by a wide variety of individuals. For example, at the University of Washington, entire study halls are fitted with overhead seasonal affective disorder lights. To use this type of light therapy, which is often made using specialized fluorescent lamps, the individual being treated for SAD should expose themselves to the light for 30 to 90 minutes every day during the winter months.

This form of therapy involves exposure to very bright light (usually from a special fluorescent lamp) between 30 and 90 minutes a day during the winter Additional relief has been found with psychotherapy sessions, and in some cases prescription of antidepressants.

Other treatments for SAD include:

  • Spending as much time as possible outdoors during the daylight hours; bundling up during cold weather helps but having at least 15 minutes of exposure of sunlight per day is a mood booster
  • Finding a counselor or therapist can be beneficial to those individuals dealing with seasonal affective disorder, such as through the use of psychotherapy sessions
  • Prescribed antidepressants can help individuals who are diagnosed with having SAD due to a biological chemical imbalance that is brought on seasonally; for those individuals who are experiencing suicidal thoughts this type of treatment can bring about the quickest and most effective form of change for the better

If you or someone whom you know is experiencing seasonal affective disorder, then you can help them to understand by sharing information about causes, symptoms and treatments for their situation. SAD is a commonplace occurrence during the winter season especially. Find encouragement through SAD support groups or by discussing the condition openly, which will help you find others experiencing the same symptoms for social support.

Knowledge is a Key to Change

The sooner you or a loved one understands why you are feeling the way you are during the winter season, the earlier you will be able to work on a treatment plan. The knowledge of understanding why you are feeling the winter blues, depression or anxiety can help relieve some of the symptoms. Additionally, you can discover how you can improve your situation by empowering yourself with the knowledge and understanding of the very real issue of seasonal affective disorder.

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