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The onset of fall and winter can trigger many changes in our lives. While many of those changes are external and environmental, some people may experience an internal shift. If year after year, you find yourself experiencing a seasonal slump or increased seasonal anxiety throughout the fall and winter months, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is categorized as a depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. In addition to seasonal affective disorder, you may have heard it referred to as Seasonal Depression or Winter Blues.
Those who experience SAD often feel depressive symptoms during the early fall and winter months. Like with major and chronic depression, people with SAD experience significant mood shifts and even behavioral changes during this time. However, the most notable difference is that symptoms of SAD mainly occur during January and February. Given the restricted periods during which symptoms occur, one might expect SAD to be an uncommon affliction; however, 5 percent of American adults suffer from SAD with symptoms lasting up to 40 percent of the year, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
If left untreated or unmanaged, SAD can cause problems that significantly impact many aspects of your life. For example, SAD can affect a person’s social and work life, lead to substance abuse, or even cause thoughts of suicide.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The most common cause of SAD is a lack of sunlight during the winter months. This change in our day can lead to a biochemical imbalance, which in turn causes irregularity in your body’s internal or biological clock. This imbalance can cause a shift in your sleep patterns and affect your ability to regulate hormones such as serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin D.
Serotonin is a chemical that affects mood, and a sudden dip in this chemical level can trigger symptoms of depression.
Melatonin is a chemical associated with sleep regulation. When sunlight exposure decreases, your body increases melatonin production, causing lethargy and a lack of energy.
Vitamin D is another chemical affected by the lack of sunlight. Sunlight exposure allows your body to naturally produce vitamin D, which also affects our serotonin levels. Vitamin D deficiency can cause feelings of fatigue and weakness, even muscle pain and depression.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is considered a separate disorder from clinical depression, although it is categorized as a major depressive disorder with symptoms similar to chronic and major depression.
- Feelings of sadness most or all days
- Increased anxiety
- Feelings of irritability and agitation
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or insignificance
- Lethargic or low energy
- Increased appetite and weight gain
- Mood swings
- Trouble concentrating
- Irregular sleep patterns
- Social withdrawal
- Thoughts of suicide
Symptoms usually begin in the fall and early winter months and subside with the onset of spring and summer. Though SAD typically affects people in the winter season, in some cases, people have experienced SAD in the summer. In these cases, symptoms include insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, and increased aggression.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD most commonly affects people between the ages of 18 and 30. If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, you should see a healthcare provider who can recommend the most appropriate form of treatment.
How to treat SAD
SAD diagnosis consists of a physical and psychological examination from your healthcare provider. Additionally, a series of lab tests may be conducted to check thyroid function.
Treatment of SAD begins with a consultation with your healthcare provider so he or she can determine the best course of treatment for you. Since various treatments exist, your provider must consider all options before moving forward, especially if a comorbid diagnosis exists.
The most common treatments currently used for seasonal affective disorder include:
Phototherapy, or light therapy, is a treatment where exposure to a lightbox or lamp that generates artificial light can mimic the effects of natural sunlight. This treatment initiates the production of vitamins and other chemical substances triggered by sunlight in the body. In short, phototherapy promotes the regulation of certain vitamins and chemicals in your body by leveraging natural processes.
Your doctor may recommend antidepressants or vitamins as a form of treatment. A common antidepressant prescribed to treat SAD is bupropion, which is an extended-release antidepressant with which some may be familiar under the name Wellbutrin. In addition, your healthcare provider may recommend vitamin D supplements to help compensate for chemical deficiencies.
Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” is another common form of treatment. Working with a trained professional can help identify negative or avoidant behaviors or triggers that contribute to SAD and help you create healthy coping mechanisms to manage the disorder.
Even beyond the treatment of SAD, therapy has proven to be an effective tool with long-lasting benefits to your emotional health.
Holistic healing is the practice of whole-body health, combining traditional medicine with alternative therapies to address mental and spiritual health. Holistic treatment of SAD can include a variety of therapies and approaches, including medication, mindfulness practices, and acupuncture.
Long-Term Management and Support
In addition to a treatment plan, other ways to approach managing SAD revolve around lifestyle changes. Some examples include learning to implement stress management techniques, practicing self-care, making healthier choices, increasing outdoor activity, and sticking to your treatment plan.
When managing seasonal affective disorder, remember that this disorder is often chronic and requires you to be patient with yourself. Although alcohol and drugs may seem to provide a temporary reprieve, harmful coping mechanisms cause far more harm than good.
Don’t Wait to Get Help
Whether attempting to manage symptoms of depression or get sober, you shouldn’t be discouraged when the going gets tough. After all, recovery isn’t supposed to be easy. However, if your treatment plan isn’t working for you or your healthcare provider is not on the same page, Silicon Beach Behavioral Health is here to help.
In the case of an emergency such as thoughts of suicide, seek out the nearest emergency room or call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available twenty-four hours a day and provides support and prevention for people experiencing a crisis. It is entirely free and confidential.
National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder. nimh.nih.gov
American Psychiatric Association. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). psychiatry.org