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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder and What Can I Do About It?

By Genevieve Cunningham

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Everyone feels down from time to time. We all have moments of sadness, of fatigue, of despair. For the most part, we’re able to shake off these feelings and continue on with life. But have you ever noticed that your poor moods seem to hit at the same time every year? That they show up every fall or winter without fail? Or maybe you start feeling down just after the holidays?

If this is familiar, it’s possible that your bad moods aren’t the normal, shake-it-off variety. It might be a sign that you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

Is Seasonal Affective Disorder a Real Thing?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), according to John Hopkins Medicine, is a mood disorder that occurs in late fall to early winter or late spring to early summer. Most people feel the effects of this disorder in the fall and winter. It can be mistaken for the winter blues, but the condition is more serious than a passing feeling of sadness. It’s a real condition that needs and deserves real attention. Though it’s becoming more openly discussed in the health world and among society in general, many are still unfamiliar with the condition. Here is some important information that everyone should know.

What is the cause of SAD? - The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but medical professionals have some ideas. Some believe the shorter days and reduced sunlight during the winter months lead to chemical changes -- namely serotonin levels -- in the brain. It may also affect circadian rhythm, which can drastically affect sleep. Though the side effects of a lack of sunlight have long been known, SAD demonstrates the true seriousness of maintaining healthy levels throughout life. Those living in colder climates and those living farthest away from the equator should be especially aware of SAD, its symptoms, and its impact on daily life.

Who is at risk? - Though SAD could affect anyone, some people are at a higher risk of developing the condition. Like many other health conditions, the risk is higher for people suffering from other mental health disorders -- such as major depression or bipolar disorder -- or those with family members affected by SAD. It’s most often diagnosed in young adulthood. The most common age range for official diagnosis is somewhere between 18 and 30 years of age. The condition is also more likely to impact women, though men should also be aware of the risks.

How does SAD impact life? - SAD can affect everyday life. Those with this disorder may withdraw from friends and loved ones, have a loss of interest in normal activities, and have trouble focusing at school or work. These disruptions may be subtle at first, but can become more frequent and more difficult to manage the longer the condition goes untreated. Getting proper care may be the only way to address these daily disruptions.

Is SAD a Mental Health Issue?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is considered a type of depression. The disorder was once called seasonal depression or winter depression, names that are still used from time to time. The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders has even labeled the condition Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. Forms of depression are consistently considered mental health issues and should be treated and managed with that in mind.

Because SAD falls into the category of mental health, it’s important to seek help from qualified professionals. It may be tempting to simply ignore the symptoms and wait for it to pass, but the seriousness of mood disorders should not be ignored. If you’re unsure whether you’re suffering from SAD or a short-term form of winter blues, it’s a good idea to reach out to a trusted healthcare professional for advice. They can help you with the entire process from diagnosis to treatment to long-term management.

What Are the Symptoms of SAD?

Gaining a full understanding of SAD and its role in our wellness is important. Perhaps more important still is determining whether you actually suffer from this disorder. For those questioning, SAD often presents with the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue - This may be feelings of being rundown and listless, or it may mean sleeping much more than usual. Either scenario may be reason enough for a wellness check.
  • Lack of focus - SAD can make concentration extremely difficult. You may suddenly find it hard to focus and complete normal daily tasks. Performing at your job may begin to feel next to impossible.
  • Sleep disruptions - Whether you’re sleeping too much or suffering from insomnia, sleep disruptions are a common problem for those affected by SAD. For SAD that occurs in the winter, sleeping too much is far more common than insomnia.
  • Cravings and weight gain - It’s easy to blame weight gain on the holidays during the winter, but it may be a symptom of SAD. Many find that their body changes with SAD, most often by weight gain. This may be accompanied by a craving for carbohydrates, making it especially difficult to recognize the symptom as a SAD side effect.
  • Feelings of sadness or despair - It’s absolutely true that depression is more than feeling sad. It’s also true that you may, in fact, feel sad while suffering from various forms of depression. When the feelings are associated with depression, the emotion tends to last longer with little in the way of relief. Relief comes from proper care and treatment.

The symptoms of SAD may vary depending on the person and the time of year in which it affects them. Fall to winter SAD may cause different symptoms than spring to summer SAD. Most people suffer from the fall to winter variety, and can therefore expect a similar presentation of symptoms as those listed above. Whatever your symptoms, if you’re feeling like something is amiss, reaching out to your healthcare professional is never a bad idea.

Can SAD Be Cured?

Though there’s not a known cure for SAD, there are treatment options available. If you suspect that SAD is affecting your life, the most important and effective action you can take is to see your primary care physician. They can help you or send you to someone who can. When it comes time to find treatment for SAD, there are a few options available. Some of these may include:

  • Therapy - Because SAD is a form of depression, it is often treated in the same way as other forms of depression. Therapy, also known as cognitive behavioral therapy or talk therapy, is a means that some use to treat SAD through the winter season, and sometimes the rest of the year as well.
  • Medication - Some may find the use of medications, specifically antidepressants, to be useful for the treatment of SAD. These medications work by altering chemicals in the brain. Though some are hesitant to try medication, they are often successful and can be administered in very low doses.
  • Light therapy - Light therapy is often used in the treatment of SAD. It involves exposing the body to bright artificial lights in order to simulate sunlight. Research has mixed reviews as to whether it is effective, but it remains one of the top choices in treating SAD.
  • Alternative measures - Some doctors may recommend natural treatments such as maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, participating in hobbies, and taking various supplements. While these can be helpful, they may be most effective when used with other treatment options. Your trusted healthcare professional can guide you to the best treatment.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a common and serious mood disorder. It affects people every year. If you find a pattern of the winter blues occurring at approximately the same time for at least two years in a row, it may be time to seek professional care. The good news is that there is hope. Treatments can help you manage the disorder and feel your best for years to come.

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